Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The British Labour Party & the Left, 1931-1936: The Roads from Coventry to Wigan & Jarrow to London.   1 comment

How comparable is Labour’s defeat of 2019 to that of 1935?

The electoral facts have shown that, at the end of 2019, the Labour Party in Britain suffered its worst defeat since 1935, yet those who led the Party to this are still refusing to accept responsibility for the debacle. They tell us that, had it not been for ‘Brexit’, they would have persuaded the British electorate to back Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘marvellous manifesto’ stuffed full of uncosted radical policies which would have transformed Britain, including widespread nationalisation without compensation, massive tax increases for private companies and entrepreneurs, and trillions of additional expenditure. Watching the daily parade of uncosted spending pledges, I was reminded of the tactics of the Militant-controlled Liverpool Council in the 1980s which followed the Leninist tactic of making impossible ‘transitional demands’ in order to take over the public agenda and sow the seeds of continual chaos. However, as a historian of the inter-war period, I’ve been re-discovering the parallels between Labour’s current crisis and the one it had to claw its way out of from 1931-36 and the ‘devils’ are ‘legion’.

Francis Beckett, a fellow historian of the Labour movement, has just published an article in the ‘New European’ pointing to a curious figure from the left’s past who seems to have inspired the party’s calamitous current state. He argues that the cause of the calamity was not Brexit, nor even the incompetence of Corbyn, McDonnell and the ‘Shadow Cabinet’, but the sectarianism of those who advised Corbyn, principally Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, who are the modern equivalents of one of the strangest figures in Labour movement history, Rajani Palme Dutt. Beckett continues:

Képtalálat a következőre: „R. Palme Dutt”

Dutt was the leading theoretician (that was the word they used) of Britain’s Communist Party, from the 1920s until he died in 1974. In the 1930s Dutt … pioneered a Moscow-inspired policy called ‘Class against Class’ which required communists to reserve their first and most deadly fire for their rivals on the left, who would divert the working class from the true path of socialism. … In the 1980s Murray and Milne ran Straight Left, the monthly journal associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction of the Communist Party. This group was ruthlessly and bitterly sectarian, in the spirit of Class against Class. After the miners’ strike of 1984-5, they reserved their bitterest abuse for anyone on the left who criticised Arthur Scargill (disclosure: I was the target of some of this).

This author had a similar, albeit local, experience to this when, after teaching in a Lancashire comprehensive, I tried to re-join the Labour Party in Coventry in 1986. By then, the ‘Militant Tendency’ and the ‘hard Left’ had taken control of the constituency party my grandparents had helped to found. Even the testimony of the local councillor my grandmother had worked alongside for half a century wasn’t enough to guarantee me entry. Apparently, I was in the wrong teachers’ union, although I discovered later there was no such rule about belonging to a TUC-affiliated union. They had obviously spotted that I might be a threat to their hegemony and weren’t interested in Labour heritage. The following year, two of the Militant/ hard-Left group, David Nellist and John Hughes were elected as two of the three Coventry MPs, but they only survived one term before they were expelled from the party. Though they were replaced by ‘mainstream’ parliamentary candidates, Labour lost its fourth general election in succession in 1992, largely because it still seemed to be rent with divisions, at least until John Smith took charge. I went into self-imposed exile in Hungary, then undergoing its transition to democracy. There I learnt what ‘revolutionary socialism’ had really been about; Hungarians told me that they had really experienced Orwell’s dystopia in real life at exactly the time he had been writing about it in his Hebridean hermitage. Five years later, I returned to Britain just in time to witness a ‘Social-Democratic’ Labour Party finally win power in 1997, holding onto it until 2010 and achieving much in the first twelve of those thirteen years.

The Drive to Municipal Socialism in Coventry:

In order to understand the relationship between Socialism and the recovery of the Labour Party in Britain between the wars, we need to understand the growth of the local parties in municipalities like Coventry and their rise to power in the Thirties. What happened to the constituency parties in Coventry in the 1980s was largely a reaction of the ‘revolutionary socialists’ to the dominance of municipal socialism as the Party’s main creed since the mid-1930s. In some ways, it appears strange that it took Labour until 1937 to gain power in so working-class a city, and this may be the result of the party’s concentration on gaining and sustaining representation in parliament through what was, after all, a coalition of national and regional political groups, unions and societies. At the local level, the ‘shopocracy’ was left to preside over Coventry’s industrial and social revolution long after its social base had ceased to be dominant. The ‘shopocracy’ was an uneasy coalition of different forces, seldom able to achieve united and disciplined action. Yet it succeeded in holding up the Labour advance for decades. Finally, in 1937, Labour gained power almost by default.

In its drive for municipal power, Labour was in a fight not with the big companies that controlled the economic life of the city and its workers, but with a political anachronism that remained in power until it was virtually exhausted. The political expression of the ‘shopocracy’ were the Liberal and Conservative parties. In the late 1920s, they had come together to form a coalition. Of all its councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in the inter-war period, one third were dealers or retailers, mostly shopkeepers. Only just over a fifth were manufacturers, mostly associated with the older-established trades such as watchmaking, silk-weaving and clothing manufacture. A further fifth was from the professions, including lawyers and doctors, alongside builders, publicans and commercial agents. Only a very small number were associated with big engineering companies, including a few senior managers, who did not stay politically active for very long.

Throughout the inter-war years, almost all the figures on comparative expenditure by county boroughs show Coventry lagging behind the majority, in particular on libraries, houses, schools and poor relief. Consequently, Coventry was low on in the list of rates levied per head. This may have encouraged more industrial concerns to move into the city, but the extension of the city and lower than average rates of unemployment allowed a policy of inactivity to survive. With a gradual improvement in the Labour vote in the 1930s, it was clear to the Coalition that its days were numbered unless drastic action was taken. It decided on a new initiative, therefore, and launched the ‘Progressive Party’. There were two reasons for this change; one was to improve organisation, and the other was to draw in support from Coventry industrialists. For years, the Coalition had won elections because of the weakness of the Labour Party rather than because of its own strength. An editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph complained of the fact that the Labour Party had a central organisation, did political work throughout the year, had developed a policy for the city, whereas the Coalition had done none of this.

In 1935, when the City Council agreed to promote a Parliamentary Bill to extend its powers, Labour saw this as a victory for socialism. The Bill was necessary in order to deal with the new lands that the City had taken over in view of its expansion. It sought to acquire powers to drill water wells, acquire land for roads, set out an airport and parks, and close private slaughterhouses.  It was not controversial and George Hodgkinson, Labour leader on the Council declared at the meeting which agreed to it, We are all socialists now. He made it clear that Labour was supporting the Bill because it was a socialist measure. There were opponents, still wedded to a policy of non-intervention, who were uneasy about the growth in the authority of city departments. Coalition parsimony tended to encourage Labour to overemphasise the collectivist aspect of extending local government services. Certainly, these services had to be planned, and this was the worst charge that Labour could throw at the Coalition, that it had failed to plan municipal enterprises.

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The early failures of the trade unions in the industrial struggle pushed the Coventry Labour Party into seeking its salvation in the municipal strategy. Labour projected itself as the party of ‘planning’ in which municipal enterprise would combine with co-operative ideals to create socialism. Many of Labour’s local leaders were also active in the co-operative movement which embraced the whole city, including the new working-class suburbs. Their vision of socialism – large, generous and undefined, included public ownership which, if properly handled, could provide the key to realising that vision. This was a very different vision of socialist values than that held by many in the trade union movement, expressed through the Trades and Labour Council which had been established a full decade before the Labour Party in the City. It had been founded before the First World War and besides co-ordinating support for major strikes at the local level, it also took up local issues on behalf of the trades unions.

What is of interest in Coventry is that for a number of years the number of people voting Labour greatly outnumbered the number of people joining trade unions. Increasingly, the unions were concerned with money, while Labour was concerned with social justice for all. The irony, of course, was that the decision by Labour to concentrate on municipal politics made it more likely that workplace politics, in turn, would become narrower in focus. From about 1934 onwards, trade union membership began to improve, very slowly at first but speeding-up from 1937.  The vehicle and aircraft industries did well for most of the Thirties, with higher pay for pieceworkers, and this stimulated many craft workers to re-join their unions to try to overtake the pieceworkers. As elsewhere in the country, the trade union revival offered scope for radical politics and the hardening of the divide between workplace politics and municipal politics, which once again made it possible for the Communist Party (CPGB) to spread its influence. It had survived the ‘lean’ years by going through a period of decline and sectarianism, which characterised its role and activities for the remainder of the decade.

But the inter-war period as a whole had seen a shift from socialism based on workshop power in Coventry to socialism as a municipal enterprise. A key factor in this shift was the existence of two distinct ruling groups within the City, the manufacturers and the ‘shopocracy’. The Coalition, with its hands growing increasingly shaky on the economic and social levers of power, and with its narrow-minded neglect of municipal duties, was an obvious target for the Labour Party. This concentration on attacking the Coalition meant that it had comparatively weak links with the trade union movement, and perhaps an over-emphasis on the road to socialism through municipal planning. But the emphasis on ‘planning’ was clearly needed to overcome the financial problems which could follow from the increase in municipal enterprises. Some traditional working-class members of the early Labour Party had a horror of borrowing instilled in them; T. J. Harris, the first Labour Mayor of Coventry could seldom be restrained from preaching against its evils, though his views were not altogether shared by some of his younger party colleagues. Nevertheless, he remained a major influence on the party throughout the inter-war period, as did the values of ‘thrift’. Fear of getting into serious debt remained a great handicap to a Council that needed to spend money. Labour hoped that the modern language of ‘planning’ and ‘intervention’ could get round the problem.

Of course, the danger of a local study, however brief, is that it might lead to an overemphasis on special local conditions and the playing down of national politics. Throughout most of the inter-war years, despite some notable ‘hiccups’, Labour succeeded in establishing itself as a major Parliamentary force, and for a few years, as a party of government. The habit of voting Labour gradually spread among working people and no doubt national developments affected voting patterns in Coventry in a similar way as they did in other parts of the country. Even before Labour came to power in Coventry, George Hodgkinson was urging the Council to look forward to the day when … property would be required by the Corporation for laying out the centre of the city on the lines followed by continental cities. Such planning was not just for a better city in the near future; it was a long-term investment that would yield funds for social spending beyond current horizons.

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Planning for the People:

Coventry had quickly become a city whose economic life was dominated by large factories, and factory life was also important to shaping social and cultural activities in the city. Labour policies had little impact on factory experiences; its appeal was based on the improvement of living conditions, and the standard and the general quality of life rather than on people’s working lives. Working people were beginning to measure this, especially in Coventry, by the extent of their access to leisure activities and facilities. The local Labour approach was to take the political passivity of the working class as a given. Labour developed a socialist programme that meant acting on behalf of working people rather than bringing them into power. Its retreat from the workshops, necessary in order to clearly establish its own identity, left a gulf in working-class politics that the Communist Party sought, in vain, to fill. The Labour Party both nationally and locally was still fully committed to the replacement of capitalism with Socialism. But in 1935 it lacked a strategy for working-class power at a national level. It saw its programme of municipal socialism in Coventry and other corporations as a means of securing a broader victory.

In retrospect, A. J. P. Taylor (1970) saw the Thirties as a period of paradox with politicians attempting to strengthen the weakened and declining remnants of industrial greatness, while the more prosperous part of the population was buying the ‘new’ industrial products. This, he argued, was a good example of a ‘disconnect’ between politicians and the people. Taylor wrote that September 1931 marked ‘the watershed’ of English history between the wars. He defined this by reference to a number of events and longer-term developments. The end of the gold standard on 21 September was the most obvious and immediate of these. Until that point, governments were hoping to restore the unregulated capitalist economy which had existed (or was thought to have existed) before 1914. After that day, they had to face their responsibility to provide conscious direction at least as far as the banks and money markets were concerned. Taylor went on to highlight the key themes of the Thirties compared with the preceding decade:

Planning was the key word of thirties; planned economy, plan for peace, planned families, plan for holidays. The standard was Utopia. …

Politicians strove to revive the depressed areas; the inhabitants left them. Public policy concentrated on the staple industries and on exports. Capital and labour developed new industries which provided goods for the home market. … The individual spent his money on domestic comforts – indeed with the growth of hire-purchase, spent other people’s money also. … the English people were ‘more planned against than planning’. …

The nineteen-thirties have been called the black years, the devil’s decade. It popular image can be expressed in two phrases; mass unemployment and ‘appeasement’. No set of political leaders have been judged so contemptuously since the days of Lord North. … The members of the National Government … would hesitate at nothing to save the country, to save the pound. The result of their courage was that the children of the unemployed had less margarine on their bread. After this resolute decision, ministers dispersed to their warm, comfortable homes and ate substantial meals. Such was ‘equality of sacrifice’. 

Yet, at the same time, as Taylor himself also pointed out, most English people were enjoying a richer lifestyle than any they had previously known: longer holidays, shorter hours and higher real wages. They also had motor cars, radio sets and other electrical appliances (many of them made at the GEC in Coventry). This other aspect of the Thirties, less dramatic than the narrative of the ‘depressed areas’ and the hunger marches, has no place in song and story. But standards of living were actually rising in that black decade. In the Thirties, if you had a job, and particularly one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could seem dismally restricted and archaic. Except for the trough of the economic crisis which, unfortunately for Labour, coincided with their time in government, from October 1929 to September 1931, it was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, the ones which had made Britain’s fortune, which were now derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods rather than iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity.

It was the mass unemployment of ‘the Slump’, more than anything else, which gave the Thirties their distorted image as a ‘long weekend’. Britain’s exports were almost halved between 1929 and 1931 and not only did the depressed industries of the Twenties now have to face, according to Cook and Stevenson (1977) an economic blizzard of unprecedented severity, but the slump also affected every branch of industry and business. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-32, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million people out of work in Great Britain. The National Government’s response was to implement further economy measures, including cuts in unemployment benefit. Financial orthodoxy and economic conservatism remained the dominant features of its strategy to cope with the slump.

Pomp & Pageantry – A Monarch for the Masses:

001George V photographed circa 1935.

The mass of the people, middle class and working class, who had fought in the war and still hoped for a ‘Merrie England’, lined up solidly behind the Pageant of History’s living representatives, the Royal family. George V commanded massive popularity. He was gruff, solid and sensible. He made sensible remarks, and his Christmas radio broadcasts in which, after a round-up of voices from all over the Empire, he spoke with great simplicity to his people, made him a father figure. His image was greatly enhanced by the fact that his Hanoverian origins had given him a classless accent. Of a member of MacDonald’s Government with whom he became friendly, he said If I’d had that man’s childhood I should feel exactly as he does. The King’s relations with MacDonald and the other Labour ministers formed an important chapter in his Kingship. According to Churchill, he was determined from the outset to show absolute impartiality to all parties in the Constitution and the workings of Parliamentary Government, irrespective of their creed or doctrine, who could obtain a majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, if the balance were to be swayed at all, it must be on the side of newcomers to power, who needed help and favour by the Crown. Never, Churchill wrote, did he need fear the British Democracy:

He reconciled the new forces of Labour and Socialism to the Constitution and the Monarchy. This enormous process of assimilating and rallying the spokesmen of left-out millions will be intently studied by historians of the future. … the spectacle was seen of the King and Emperor working in the utmost ease and unaffected cordiality with politicians whose theories at any rate seemed to menace all existing institutions, …

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In 1935, George V had been on the throne for twenty-five years and the nation decided to give him a party. The Jubilee celebrations were marked by a genuine warmth of feeling, which came as a surprise to the King himself. When they toured the poorer parts of the capital, the King and Queen received an overwhelmingly affectionate and enthusiastic welcome. He is supposed to have said, I am beginning to think they must like me for myself. In the photo above, vast crowds cheer the procession as it returns to the Palace. The King wrote later that this was the greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life. 

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Below: A Jubilee street party in May 1935. All over Britain, workers decorated their houses and streets, and made the most of the occasion with a spirit that must have dismayed ‘true socialists’. In his speech, the King made reference to the unemployed, saying ‘I grieve to think of the numbers of my people who are without work’.  The Stockport Chamber of Trade recommended a public holiday to mark the Jubilee but left it to the employers to decide whether or not to pay their workers.  As a result, only one mill gave the day off with pay, so that thousands of workers celebrated the Jubilee with a reduced pay packet.

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Below: Earlier in the Jubilee year, Alderman F. Bowler, the leader of the local Labour Party, had led a protest march to the Town Hall (on 6 March) to fight inside the Council against the rate reduction of threepence in the pound, and for more jobs. The Labour group put down a motion urging the Council to ‘respond to the Prince Of Wales’ appeal to employers to engage an extra one per cent of men on permanent employment’. The photograph shows protesting men forming a cordon around the Town Hall. 

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Why did so many workers vote Tory in December 1935?

Besides producing a different kind of factory worker, the new industries greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers and small tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper-middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning aristocracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government and stability. In the event, they were joined by at least half the old working classes who were in such dire straits, and this was a straight vote for tradition: ‘in the crisis’ they thought, as was often the case with British workers, that we shall be saved, if at all, by those who are used to ruling and governing according to well-tried formulae which in the past have put us on top. That was the reason for the huge parliamentary majorities for MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain. René Cutforth summed up the British attitude as follows:

Put lucidly the proposition before the British nation in the 1930s would run something like this:

“In the last war nearly a million British men, in the younger half of the population, laid down their lives for King and Country/ Civilisation/ Freedom. Take your pick. Since we are not at this moment, as we sometimes feared we would be, a bankrupt German province, it can be said that their sacrifice saved us. We are now in the position of having to be saved again. It seems that the sacrifice required this time is that a further one and a half million, the permanently unemployed, lay down their lives, not abruptly and in violence like the soldiers: they will not even have to stop breathing, but ‘lives’ in the sense in which we want to preserve them in these islands, they cannot have. If this is what has to be, amen.”

Put like that, I don’t believe the proposition would have won a single vote, but in fact that is the way we voted and that is what happened. 

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At the beginning of October 1935, Harold Nicolson, career diplomat and diarist, was offered a ‘safe’ seat in the National Labour interest at Leicester West in the November General Election. He jumped at the offer since he had been regarded as ‘damaged goods’ since his ill-starred flirtations with Beaverbrook and Mosley earlier in the decade. He was certainly not a socialist in any meaningful sense of the word, admitting himself that such socialism as he owned was ‘purely cerebral’ and that he did ‘not like the masses in the flesh’. So of course, Real Labour was out of the question, and Nicolson really saw himself as an Asquithian Liberal, but they were now extinct as a parliamentary organism. He had, therefore, wandered aimlessly along the political spectrum, from the New Party to National Labour, stopping off along the way to check out the Conservatives or the Liberals, without ever ideologically coming to rest at any one particular point. In his attempt to identify this point in public, he wrote a pamphlet for National Labour which took the form of an imaginary conversation between himself and a fellow passenger on a train journey between London and Leicester, published as Politics in the Train. He told his sceptical companion that how much he disliked sectional parties and bureaucrats, those that place their own interests or theories above the interests of the country as a whole. 

Although he favoured the concept of an organic state, he did not believe in rendering Britain a totalitarian State; in fact, he abhorred all forms of ‘isms’ and ‘dictatorships’. National Labour, he argued, represented ‘the future point of view’: it would base its policy on ‘Internal Reorganisation’ and ‘External Peace’. He believed in National Labour because he believed ‘in reality’ and Labour because he believed ‘in idealism’. He sympathised completely with the plight of the poor and thought of himself as belonging to a ‘progressive left-wing’. Although he considered Eton ‘the most perfect education system in all the world’, he deplored the class system in education and the division between public and council schools. Favouring equal education for all, he wanted people of any class to enjoy the privileges of the capitalist class, aiming at bringing Eton to the masses. These views were perhaps not so far removed from those emerging from George Orwell’s pen. But when Nicolson was writing in his diaries, he stated that while he had ‘always been on the side of the underdog’, he had also always believed in the hereditary principle. Once he sensed that his aristocratic values were under threat, he revealed his true colours.

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But, knowing little of domestic politics and having nothing in common with the middle-class and working-class voters he sought to win over, he flinched from the cut and thrust of electioneering. The hustings held no appeal for him, especially when having to face working men and women lowing in disgust and hatred. He wrote in his diary after a campaign meeting in the constituency that he loathed every moment of the Election. His mood was not improved by the Liberals deciding at the last moment to enter a candidate, making it a much closer-run race.  When voting took place on 14 November, the contest could not have been more tightly fought.  After a recount, Nicolson sneaked in with a majority of just eighty-seven, much to the delight of his supporters. As he told his wife Vita later, I put all my philosophy of life into that Election. Yet it was a philosophy expressed by an Asquithian Liberal disguised as a National Labourite, propping up a National  Government controlled by the Conservatives led by Baldwin with the rump of National Labour trailing behind, led by an ailing Ramsay MacDonald, its eight members swallowed up in another huge Tory majority. MacDonald offered him a job as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, but he refused, explaining to Vita that:

… I fear that Ramsay is a vain and slightly vindictive old man … somewhat like King Charles I addressing the Cavaliers from the Whitehall scaffold. ‘You eight people … are at the seed-bed of seminal ideas. The young Tories are on your side. Work hard; think hard; and you will create a classless England.’ 

MacDonald also championed the idea of a ‘Tory Socialism’ which  Harold Nicolson must have considered to be almost as absurd as the notion of ‘a classless England’. It was fortunate for him that foreign affairs came to dominate the new Parliament as well as public opinion. On these matters, he was able to speak with authority and from experience not given to many MPs. His first opportunity to do so came sooner than he planned. On 19 December 1935, he rose from the backbenches to deliver his maiden speech at a dramatic moment, just after the Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare, had resigned over his role in the Hoare-Laval Pact which was designed to end the Ethiopian war which had been raging since October. The war in Abyssinia had already cost the Labour opposition its leader.

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Despite the overwhelming victory of the ‘National Government’ at the General Election of November 1935, though now essentially a Conservative one, the recovery of the Labour Party under Clement Attlee’s leadership was evident in it gaining 154 seats, making it the major party of opposition to the Tories. George Lansbury, a committed pacifist, had resigned as the Leader of the Labour Party at the 1935 Party Conference on 8 October, after delegates voted in favour of sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury had strongly opposed the policy and felt unable to continue leading the party. Taking advantage of the disarray in the Labour Party, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had replaced MacDonald as PM in June of that year, announced on 19 October that a general election would be held on 14 November. With no time for a leadership contest, the party agreed that Attlee, as Deputy, should serve as interim leader, on the understanding that a leadership election would be held after the general election. Attlee, therefore, led Labour through the 1935 election, which saw the party stage a partial comeback from its disastrous 1931 performance, winning 38 per cent of the vote, the highest share Labour had won up to that point. Although numerically the result can be compared with the result of the 2019 Election, that is where the similarity ends. In historical terms, Labour was back on the road to its 1945 victory. Contemporaries also saw the result as a harbinger of things to come for Labour, as the letter written by the Liberal Marquess of Lothian to Lloyd George shortly after the election shows:

The Labour Party … is the party of the future; it proclaims that Socialism is the central issue of the century as democracy was of the last, and individual rights of earlier times, and has a vague, and largely unpractical programme of reform; it has behind it the interests of the Trade Unions and the co-operative movement reinforced by a steadily growing body of young intellectual Socialists. … The practical choice is between letting the Liberal Party die and encouraging liberally-minded people to join the other two parties in order to liberalise them and compel them both to be faithful to essential liberal tradition.

The Liberals won only twenty-one seats, losing eleven seats to Labour and four to the Tories. In fact, though, both the (by then) main parties benefited from the Liberal decline and, given the Conservative dominance after 1931, it was perhaps the Right rather than the Left which gained most in the long-term. More importantly, perhaps, the 1935 Election set the pattern for the post-war political system as a two-party rather than a multi-party democracy, especially in terms of governments.

Attlee Arrives, two Kings Depart. …

Képtalálat a következőre: „Clement Attlee, 1935”

Attlee (pictured above in 1935) stood in the subsequent leadership election, held soon after, in which he was opposed by Herbert Morrison, who had just re-entered parliament in the recent election, and Arthur Greenwood: Morrison was seen as the favourite, but was distrusted by many sections of the party, especially the left-wing. Arthur Greenwood meanwhile was a popular figure in the party. Attlee was able to come across as a competent and unifying figure, particularly having already led the party through a general election. He went on to come first in both the first and second ballots, formally being elected Leader of the Labour Party on 3 December 1935. Writing in 1954, S. Haffner was clear about the significance of his two victories in Attlee’s career:

... As a statesman, Attlee’s formative period undoubtedly began in 1935. His party had been crushed at the 1931 election after the MacDonald ‘betrayal’; and Lansbury had proved quite ineffective as a parliamentary leader. So Attlee – one of the few Labour candidates to have survived the landslide – was told to act as leader until after the next election.

The Labour Party was in an almost hopeless mess – utterly defeated, and divided into quarrelling factions. Attlee, loyal, modest, impartial, clear-headed, capable of decision, and with the courage of his personal detachment, had precisely the qualities needed. In reuniting his broken party he added to those qualities a volume of experience in political management – so that he has quietly led the party ever since. It was at this time that the loyal Attlee learned to stomach disloyal colleagues. …

In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote that no-one could underestimate the strength of Attlee’s leadership. His contemporaries had tended to write him down as an amiable little man, but the Conservative peer regarded him as a shrewd, reasonable, and practical man … closer to the aspirations and difficulties of ordinary people than contemporary political leaders.

At five minutes to midnight on 20 January 1936, King George died at Sandringham in Norfolk. The public had been well prepared for the death of the King and a few hours earlier the BBC’s chief announcer had told the country; The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close. He was sincerely mourned as the representative of tradition, stability and ‘the good old days’. At the end of January, vast crowds once more stood on the streets of London, some having waited all night to watch the King’s funeral procession.

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The new King, Edward VIII had a very different image from his father’s and already, as Prince of Wales, he had become something of a hero among the unemployed in his role as patron of the National Council of Social Service. Having already toured the depressed areas in 1928, he had already irritated Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister and other members of his cabinet, who at the beginning of 1936 were now in charge of the National Government. Later in the year, on touring the South Wales Coalfield once more, now as monarch, he had been heard to utter Dreadful! Something will be done about this! which was misreported as Something must be done! The first phrase might have been regarded as a promise of a re-doubling of efforts by charitable agencies, but the Government took umbrage at a time when Baldwin and the King were already protagonists in the abdication crisis. With that one misreported utterance, his reputation among ministers as ‘irresponsible’ was sealed together with his fate as King. Little wonder then that there were rumours of a march to London of South Wales miners to restore him as King, following his forced abdication.

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The Radical Writers on the Left:

Another growing class in the Thirties was ‘a strange and disorderly mob’ according to René Cutforth. The Left referred to it as the ‘intelligentsia’, made up of intellectuals and artists and included a fair number of the rich and fashionable and their ‘hangers-on’. Cutforth commented that in the Thirties this layer of the population went violently Red almost overnight. This new mood was born at Oxford University and led by its young poets, Wyston Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis and, a little later, Louis MacNeice. They were called the ‘Auden Group’ but all they had in common was a frame of mind – outrage at the plight of the poor and the ‘smugness’ of the rest. They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the most characteristic intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. What they were after was a Bolshevik-style revolution. It was to arrive with ‘the death of the Old Gang, the death of us’. Auden always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, the audience was so small that it often seemed that these poets were writing for each other.

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It was just possible in the early Thirties to believe that social justice was flowering in the Soviet Union and that mankind was on its way to the millennium via Moscow, but even then only to addicts of Communist belief who were the Thirties’ most characteristic academic product. For these, the Soviet Union was the sacred cow, and any word of criticism of it was no mere disagreement or even heresy, but rank blasphemy. Most of the intellectuals on the Left were far too ‘committed’ to bother to get the facts right, and later plenty of them dismissed Stalin’s terror brightly as ‘necessary for the creation of the new order’. The Thirties was the great age of illusion in which intellectuals could believe anything they wanted, regardless of the available evidence to the contrary, and frequently did.

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The Marxists expected the Revolution ‘any week now’. Capitalism was supposed to be on its last legs, to have at most a few tottering years to run. One good push would topple it over, and then the road to socialism would be found out of the ensuing chaos and catastrophe. C. Day Lewis wrote:

Drug nor isolation will cure this cancer.

It is now or never the hour of the knife,

The break with the past, the major operation. 

In many ways, he was speaking for his time. The idea of the ‘necessary chaos’ was the notion underlying all the art of the Thirties. The revolution was seen by Auden as making the artist’s private sensibility an irrelevance; the revolutionary poet should remain absolutely detached, like a surgeon or a scientist. He believed, therefore, that poetry should reflect this by being classical and austere:

Financier, leaving your little room

Where the money is made but not spent, …

The game is up for you and the others,

Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns

Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, …

Seekers after happiness, all who follow

The convulsions of your simple wish,

It is later than you think.

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The last line of Auden’s poem might well have been an apt motto of his whole ‘group’. Throughout the decade, however, George Orwell maintained a critical view of the group in particular and the orthodox Soviet-worshippers in general, whom he regarded as divorced from humanity: they had never met anyone outside their own social class, he said, annoying them greatly because they knew he was right. Even if they were intellectually exciting and were genuine poets, they were most genuine when least political, and their political achievements were very limited. Far more effective politically was Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, established in May 1936 with forty thousand readers who each received a book a month, chosen by Gollancz and two other Marxist intellectuals, John Strachey and Stafford Cripps, to revitalise and educate the ‘British Left’. It was not necessary to be either a Marxist or even a Socialist to be on ‘the Left’ in the Thirties. There was also a large, somewhat vague area of opinion which called itself ‘anti-fascist’, and it was to those of this opinion that the Left Book Club addressed itself. The use of the word ‘Left’ was known from the nineteenth century due to the adversarial nature of parliamentary seating according to the Speaker’s position in the Commons, but it was not ‘common’ as a general description before the 1920s. The Left Book Club helped to make it a synonym for ‘Socialist’ since it became a key left-wing institution of the late 1930s and the 1940s, with over sixty thousand readers. According to Cutforth, the Left Book Club exerted a strong influence on the mind of the decade.

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‘The Autobiography of a Miner Working in South Wales’, London: Gollancz, 1939.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by its best-known book, written in 1936 and published the following year, written by the most influential author of the Thirties and Forties, if not the century. Three days after the King’s funeral at the end of January 1936, George Orwell left London by train on the beginning of a journey of journalism, investigation and self-discovery. Victor Gollancz had commissioned him to write a book on Britain’s ravaged industrial north, and for this purpose, Orwell wanted to see the effects of unemployment and experience the British working class ‘at close quarters’. At that time, he was a contributor to the left-wing literary journal, The Adelphi. George Orwell was the first writer to travel to the north to report on the horrors of poverty and deprivation to be found there. J. B. Priestley had already journeyed around Britain in the Autumn of 1933, and his best-seller, English Journey, had drawn attention to the awful conditions to towns in the Midlands and the North. Priestley, the bestselling novelist and playwright, used his journalistic skills to write a travelogue about his ‘sojourns’ in various towns and cities in the previous year. It seems to describe England in accurate, realistic terms, contrasted with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier of a year later, which was written with the main aim of filling the English middle classes with guilt and so exaggerated some of the evidence gathered to gain that effect. The spectre of Bolshevism which he also used to great effect, later became one of the facets of the mythology of the Thirties, and Priestley provided a useful corrective to a view which, as Orwell later admitted, emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British society. Orwell’s view was as bleakly pessimistic as it could be; Priestley was ever the optimist.

013There was also a growing sense, felt especially keenly on the left, that while much was known about the British Empire, the experience of the working classes at home had been hidden for too long. To put this right a number of groundbreaking novels were published on the subject, one or two of them written by working-class authors. The most successful of these was Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a moving account of an unemployed family in Salford, where the author grew up. It was a best-seller, later made into a play (in which this author played a leading role in the early eighties) and a film. Left-wing film-makers, led by the pioneering producer John Grierson, were using the new medium of the documentary film in the hope of creating a new perspective on a Britain, in which at least two nations existed in parallel realities.

At the beginning of 1936, Britain was still a class-bound and divided nation, split between a rapidly modernising and growing ‘south’ and the impoverished peripheral regions of south Wales, northern England and central Scotland.  For Priestley, the ‘two nations’ view of the Thirties was greatly oversimplified. There was certainly depression and appalling human suffering but it was localised rather than general as the Thirties progressed. Equally, in parts of the Midlands, there were ‘blackspots’ of high unemployment among the generally prosperous  ‘new industry towns’ as Orwell had also noted in his diary on his journey, partly on foot, through the Midlands from Coventry to Birmingham to Cheshire before taking the train to Manchester. Priestley wrote of how he had seen England:

I had seen a lot of Englands. How many? At once, three disengaged themselves from the shifting mass. There was first, Old England, the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire, guidebook and quaint highways and byways England … But we all know this England, which at best cannot be improved upon in the world. …

Then, I decided, there is the nineteenth-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, … This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not being added to and has no new life poured into it. To the more fortunate people it was not a bad England at all, very solid and comfortable. …

The third England, I concluded, was the new post-war England, belonging far more to the age itself than to this island. … This is theEngland of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibiting buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés,  … You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol. … In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress. … Most of the work  … is rapidly becoming standardised in this new England, and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. …

Here then were the three Englands I had seen, the Old, the Nineteenth-Century and the New; and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country I had visited. …. 

North of Manchester:

George Orwell was just one of a host of journalists, economists, sociologists, medical experts and nutritionists who produced reports in 1936 that were to be seminal in the envisioning and formation of the welfare state in the next decade. But Orwell was different. He scorned journalist such as Priestley for their ‘middle-class writing’. He didn’t wish to study the poor and then go off to a comfortable hotel to rest and recuperate. He wanted to plunge into people’s lives, albeit briefly, and experience working-class life at first hand. In his desire to immerse himself in poverty and discomfort an urge for self-punishment and a degree of voyeurism, a tradition in English literature of slum-visiting that went back to Mayhew and Dickens. Orwell had first become familiar with the world of poverty (of a different kind) by becoming a tramp in order to describe this world in Down and Out in Paris and London. Denys Blakeway has recently written of the impact on him of his journey north:

Orwell, the former Imperial policeman who had served in Burma, had never been to the North of England before; he had never seen the smoking chimneys and satanic mills of the industrial areas that had given rise to to Britain’s wealth and that were home to its worst oppression. Like a latter-day Engels, he experienced an epiphany, as what he saw changed him from a sceptical liberal into an unorthodox but nevertheless committed socialist, ready later in the year to fight for the cause in Spain.   

Arriving in Manchester, Orwell was put in touch with Jerry Kennan, an activist and unemployed coal miner in Wigan who took him to the town’s market square, where every weekend a series of political meetings took place. These were attempts, mostly unsuccessful, to engage workers in radical action, much of which took place outside of the sterile world of the coalition government in Westminster. According to Kennan, that Saturday afternoon there were several meetings going on in the square, held by the ILP, the Communist Party, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and various religious bodies. The NUWM was much mistrusted by the authorities as a Communist front, but by the jobless, it was widely regarded as the most effective organisation working on their behalf. It had been responsible for many hunger marches and protests against the Means Test that had helped to raise awareness of the suffering of unemployment through the years of depression. Kennan and his guest headed for the NUWM shelter, a dreadful, ramshackle place, he wrote, although he acknowledged that it was warm and welcoming. When the men there learned about his mission, they immediately offered help with finding information and, more importantly, lodgings. To his discomfort, however, his southern origins and background could not be hidden, and the men insisted on calling him ‘Sir’. In 1936, his class could not be easily disguised, and Orwell’s public school accent would have been unmistakable, however scruffy he may have appeared after days and nights spent on the road to Wigan.

On the first evening in Wigan, Orwell went as a guest of the NUWM to Wigan’s Co-operative Hall to hear Wal Hannington, a veteran activist, one of Gollancz’s authors, and the leader of the Movement. He was also one of the founding members of the CPGB, which made him an object of state suspicion and police surveillance. Stanley Baldwin saw activists such as Hannington as real dangers to the security of the realm. The CPGB and the NUWM had been behind numerous strikes, sit-ins and hunger marches during the previous five years, and within the establishment, there was genuine fear of revolution. Orwell dismissed Hannington as a ‘poor speaker’ who used all ‘the padding and clichés of the socialist orator’, but was impressed by the audience’s response and ‘surprised by the amount of Communist feeling’. At the time, the CPGB had only 11,500 members in Britain compared with the 400,000 members of the Labour Party, but its popularity and influence extended far beyond its membership. When Hannington told his audience that, in a war between Britain and the USSR, the latter would win, he was greeted with ‘loud cheers’. The Soviet Union under Stalin was revered by many, from founding members of the Labour Party, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation; like H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw; like the young Oxbridge intellectuals mentioned above and like the ‘working-class radicals’. such as B L Coombes (see his book cover above).

George Bernard Shaw, the other ‘ancient’, was still writing, though he had nothing much to contribute in the Thirties. He enjoyed showing off in the newspapers and, together with Wells, both of them committed socialists, made a trip to Moscow and came back with a rose-tinted view of Soviet life. Bertrand Russell meanwhile, committed to the pursuit of the truth, also went to the Soviet capital and reported that Stalin was indeed a cruel man and that life in Russia was indeed Red but far from rosy. But most intellectuals were still more influenced by ‘Victorian’ liberal writers, like W. B. Yeats, one of whose verses from ‘The Second Coming’ seemed to fit the times and was always being quoted:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

As 1936 progressed, the call for action for Priestley’s nineteenth-century Britain to have new life poured into it, for something to be done, became stronger. As L. J. Williams (1971), the economic historian, pointed out, although the size and nature of the unemployment problem changed comparatively little over the two decades of the inter-war period, there was, with the flood of writing, research and social heart-searching on the topic, a much greater awareness of the basically localised and structural nature of the unemployment problem. With the publication of Keynes’ General Theory, 1936 became the key year for advancing (but not implementing) modern economic solutions to the problem of unemployment. By this time, it was clear that the British economy had recovered from its low point at the beginning of 1932, and was growing rapidly compared with its European rivals, and even compared with the USA. At the same time, to the government’s great embarrassment, a number of studies of unemployment and poverty were revealing the causal link with poor health. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, commissioned one of these studies from the Medical Officer of Health for Stockton-on-Tees, whose research showed that an appalling ninety-four per cent of children in County Durham schools had signs of rickets as a result of poor diet. In March, the future PM and Conservative MP for Stockton,  Harold Macmillan, published Sir John Boyd Orr’s massive study, Food, Health and Income. This was an act of rebellion by a Conservative MP representing a northern industrial constituency. The government had done its best to suppress the study, which revealed the devastating fact that:

… one third of the population of this country, including all the unemployed, were unable, after paying rent, to purchase sufficient of the more expensive foods to give them an adequate diet.

Moreover, Boyd Orr calculated that that half the population did not eat ‘up to the modern health standard’. Rural poverty was also shown to be rising rapidly. Ted Willis, a young socialist in 1936, recalled how his mother used to go out and buy four pennyworths of scrag end of lamb and with that, she would make a big stew which would last us two or three days. On one occasion, he came home to find his mother putting a lid on the stew and taking it out of the house.  When he protested at her taking it to a neighbour’s house, his mother slapped his face, saying You’re hungry, but they’re starving!  In 1934 a National Assistance Board had been created, which set a uniform rate for ‘unemployment assistance throughout the country.’ In general, benefits to the unemployed were cut by about ten per cent in the 1930s. In South Wales, Central Scotland and the North of England, unemployed people were much more reliant on means-tested and discretionary benefits than insurance. This was because periods of unemployment in these areas were longer, forcing unemployed workers onto ‘the dole’ when their insurance benefits ran out. This fuelled the sense of shame and anger among the unemployed and their families. René Cutforth commented on the continuing plight of the unemployed throughout the decade:

To the end of the decade about a million and a half workers were relegated to limbo and their lives laid waste. But not without a struggle. 

Fighting back; Marching on …

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The unemployed ‘struggled’ against their condition by marching, organising rallies and engaging in rent strikes. Led by Wal Hannington of the CPGB, the NUWM had around twenty thousand members by 1932, with the active support of at least twice that number. Their most famous actions were the ‘Hunger Marches’ of 1932, 1934 and 1936. There were also protest marches against the introduction and operation of the means test, particularly from Scotland and South Wales. The photographs below show Wal Hannington and Harry McShane leading the Scottish marchers and contingents from Teeside and Sunderland crossing the Tyne Bridge in 1932.

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The pictures of the 1934 March on the left below are two of those taken of the women’s column which marched to London from Derby. They capture the feeling of comradeship and purpose that existed between the marchers on their wintry trek to London. The shots of the first aid treatment of blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women, either unemployed themselves or having out-of-work husbands. The marchers all depended on the goodwill of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. The picture on the right shows heads turning in the crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square on 3rd March, as they watched the approach of the marchers

The March Council had requested a meeting with the PM, Ramsay MacDonald in a letter supported by a number of Labour MPs, but they did not succeed in putting their case to the House of Commons, though they had the support of a large number of MPs including Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee also spoke up for the marchers, saying that they were …

… fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous … there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

The marchers sent a delegation to Downing Street, led by two ILP MPs, Maxton and McGovern, and the two Communist leaders of the NUWM, Hannington and McShane. He was ‘not at home’, but, in an outburst in the Commons, asked, …

… Has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first-class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind! 

However, the most successful march was not organised by the NUWM and in fact, eschewed any involvement from it and other sectarian organisations. In fact, ‘The Jarrow Crusade’ of October 1936 owed that success to the determinedly non-political and cross-party organisation of its leaders, most notably that of the town’s Labour (and ILP) MP, Ellen Wilkinson with the official support of Jarrow’s Mayor, Bill Thompson, who was a Labour man, but insisted that it should have the backing of all parties. It was an entirely bipartisan, peaceful march for jobs, approved by the whole Council, which also enjoyed the support of many local and regional Church leaders, including the Bishop of Sheffield, though (infamously) not the Bishop of Durham. It involved two hundred carefully-chosen, relatively fit unemployed men. Jarrow was one of the worst-hit areas in England, largely because of the closure of its shipyard, with eighty per cent of its workers on the dole. The ‘crusaders’ carried over eighty thousand signatures to Parliament, asking the House of Commons to realise the urgent need that work should be provided without delay. They achieved little in the short-term by way of economic relief but did draw widespread public attention to the plight of the unemployed ‘left behind’ in the older industrial areas as the economy as a whole recovered in 1936, due to the expansion of newer industries and the beginnings of rearmament.

The Labour Party, together with the TUC, was fearful of the taint of Communism that went with hunger marches and instructed local branches to reject requests for help from the crusaders as they passed. Some delegates at the Party conference in Edinburgh that October attacked Ellen Wilkinson directly. One of them, Lucy Middleton, criticised her for sending hungry and ill-clad men on a march to London, advocating the making of propaganda films about the distressed areas instead. This ‘stab in the back’ from her own party was one which would rankle for years to come. Though hailing from one of the poorer areas of Coming from metropolitan Manchester herself, Wilkinson soon discovered that, in a tight-knit community such as Jarrow, where almost all were workless, the highly-skilled man, the ambitious young foreman, the keenest trade-unionists provided the leadership for the unemployed. One such man was David Riley, the Council leader, a hefty Irishman with an iron will. He volunteered to lead them on the road to London and it was he who insisted that this would be a ‘crusade’, not another hunger march. An appeal for signatures for the petition and funds was made under the Mayor’s name and Thompson used his civic position to gain the support of the many Conservative town councils along the route south. Paradoxically, it was the Conservative councils who most often held out the hand of friendship to the crusaders. Following Thompson’s request, and joint letters from the Conservative and Labour agents, they offered food and lodging at every Tory-controlled town and village through which the men passed, including Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield.

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Ellen Wilkinson (pictured above, leading the Crusade) had described herself, on more than one occasion, as a ‘revolutionary socialist’, and had needed a great deal of persuasion not to raise the issues of party politics during the Crusade. She was the moving spirit in Jarrow, a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire, the year before, during the General Election campaign, she had led a march to ‘beard’ Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. In the event, all that march achieved was a bleating admonition from the cornered statesman:

Ellen, why don’t you go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this?

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On 5 October, the two hundred men set out under a banner, ‘Jarrow Crusade’ to march to London, three hundred miles away, as an official delegation to Parliament. Everybody turned out to watch them go. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles and, after that, Ellen Wilkinson. David Riley insisted on the removal of any socialist banners that appeared with sympathisers along the route. One marcher was sent home for expressing ‘communistic beliefs’ and another was threatened with expulsion. It was an effective policy since other marches were ignored, whereas the Crusade received widespread friendly attention from the press, and the march became a long-running national story. The government became alarmed by its popularity, as the Manchester Guardian reported that there could be no doubt that the march was an abounding success – the organisation seems well-nigh perfect. The Cabinet issued a statement in a parliamentary democracy, processions to London cannot claim to have any constitutional influence on policy.  No deputations would be received by ministers.

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This response might have been expected, but the crusaders’ reception by the Labour town council in Chesterfield was surprising, considering the welcome they had just received from the Sheffield Tories. The pleas for assistance were turned down, forcing the marchers to rely on the charity of local businessmen, mainly Tories, for food and blankets. Ellen Wilkinson recalled how they weighed in with hot meals and a place to sleep. A clear pattern was emerging, with the Conservatives welcoming and Labour shunning, a pattern which continued to the end of the trek, to the enduring bitterness of all the crusaders. In Leicester, however, the Co-op worked all night mending their boots. Bedford, in the suspect south, rallied to their support. They arrived in London in a cloudburst with their mouth-organ band playing ‘The Minstrel Boy’. On their final evening in London, they had hoped to be addressed by the London Labour leader, Herbert Morrison, together with an audience of influential Londoners. In the event, he did not show up, probably on the orders of the national leadership, and had to be replaced by Canon Dick Sheppard as the keynote speaker (pictured below).

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The next morning the crusaders went to the House of Commons, dressed in smart suits specially bought for the occasion with funds raised during the march. They were expecting to deliver the petition, but Stanley Baldwin, with the support of Neville Chamberlain (pictured above) refused to allow the men to come to the bar of the House to deliver the petition in person. To avoid any ugly scenes, Ellen Wilkinson gave them a guided tour of Westminster and then packed the majority of the men onto a River Thames pleasure-boat for a sightseeing cruise. It was a deception cooked up with Sir John Jarvis, a Surrey MP with longstanding charitable connections to Jarrow. Only a few of the men were allowed to watch from the Strangers’ Gallery while Wilkinson went through the solemn procedure of presenting the petition to the Speaker. She spoke tearfully of their plight, but Runciman, who had said earlier that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, refused to answer a question because it was not on the order paper, although he did say that his information was that the situation in Jarrow was improving. Baldwin refused to say anything, and that was it. When they arrived back in Jarrow by train, the speakers at the Town Hall put a brave face on the obvious failure of the crusade. The goal of the march was to get the National Government to overturn the decision to close down the shipyard, not to put up a new steelworks, as Jarvis had proposed at the last minute, looking like a ‘fairy-godfather’, but in reality, simply trying to help save the Conservative Party from an electoral wipe-out in a region devastated by economic malaise.

Nevertheless, the crusaders had aroused a sympathy throughout the country which compels the Government to act, as David Riley told them. By rejecting class-based politics and appealing to broader social sympathies, the Jarrow Crusade had touched the hearts of many for whom talk of the distressed areas had meant nothing until they saw it in person or on the newsreels. With its military discipline, and containing in its ranks many veterans of the First World War, it harked back to that conflict, evoking in the onlooker feelings of compassion and guilt. The Crusade was also one of the foundations of a new consensus that was emerging and would solidify after the Second World War. The country came to agree almost unanimously that such extremes of poverty should never be allowed to return. A new, very British idea of social justice was emerging and a collective opinion-forming that would eventually give rise to the welfare state. Jarrow was the classic march, but even while it was going on, other marches were in progress. Four hundred Scotsmen from Glasgow, for instance, were marching south to join up with other contingents from South Wales and elsewhere to protest against the means test, as seen in the photos below. Marching became an epidemic in the Thirties in Britain.

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The NUWM had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and contingents of women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November 1936. The two postcard-size photographs below came from South Wales. When the eight hundred marchers, carrying their Keir Hardie banner from Aberdare, reached Slough, they were greeted by eleven thousand compatriots, because by that time Slough had become known as ‘little Wales’ peopled by migrants from the valleys. 

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The photograph below shows some of the Welsh marchers lining up outside Cater Street School, Camberwell, where they were to spend the night, prior to the march to the Hyde Park rally. Among the speakers were Aneurin Bevan MP and Clement Attlee. The former said that ‘The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILPers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.’ The latter moved the resolution that ‘the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed. …’

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From the Threat of Revolution to the Promise of Reform:

Politicians of all the parliamentary parties began to fear a revolution by the end of 1936, not least because there were Fascists as well as Communists marching. The Church became involved with William Temple, the Christian Socialist Archbishop of York commissioning a scientific inquiry into long-term unemployment, Men Without Work, based on the experiences of the jobless for twelve months up to November 1936 as its evidence. Researchers were sent out across Britain as a whole to immerse themselves in the areas of greatest poverty, staying in the households of the workless. Besides being a national survey, those sent by Archbishop Temple were experts, unlike Orwell. They were economists, psychologists and social scientists, funded by the Pilgrim Trust and supervised by the Director of the London School of Economics, Sir William Beveridge, who advised them to study in detail the lives of a thousand long-term unemployed men, and their families; their health, living conditions and physical environment. Beveridge was able, from 1942, to use their findings to provide the evidential basis for the creation of the post-war Welfare State.

One of these researchers was a young Jewish refugee, Hans Singer. A brilliant economist, he had moved to Britain to study under his hero, John Maynard Keynes. Having escaped from Nazi Germany, Singer found him himself the victim of anti-Semitic abuse as a professor at Istanbul and moved to Cambridge. After two years, Keynes recommended him to Temple because of his interest in unemployment. His detailed research papers, archived at the LSE, are essential sources for social historians of the period. Many of these, along with the Pilgrim Trust Report in full, were not published until 1937, by which time the argument for ‘Planning’ had already been won. But the devil still remained in the detail of the implementation, in which the Labour Party had little if any official responsibility, except on a local basis. However, together with a more united and progressive Left, they did have increasing influence over public opinion nationally and regionally.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed.) (n.d.), Life & Labour in a Twentieth-Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry (University of Warwick): The Cryfield Press.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted January 8, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, Anglicanism, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Birmingham, Brexit, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Conservative Party, Coventry, David Lloyd George, democracy, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Great War, History, Humanities, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, New Labour, Patriotism, populism, Poverty, Refugees, Respectability, Revolution, Scotland, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Welfare State, West Midlands, Women's History, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of Working-Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Press.

Richard Brown (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part One, 1901-21.   Leave a comment

Individualism & Collectivism:

According to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), the term ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.

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Yet, also in this period, movements describing themselves as ‘socialist’, for example, the English Fabians, powerfully revived what was really a variant sense in which ‘socialism’ was seen as necessary to complete liberalism, rather than as an alternative theory of society. To George Bernard Shaw and others in Britain and Ireland, socialism was the economic side of the democratic ideal (Fabian Essays, 33) and its achievement was an inevitable prolongation of the earlier tendencies which Liberalism had represented. Opposing this view, and emphasising the resistance of the capitalist economic system to such ‘inevitable’ development, William Morris used the word communism. Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.

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Marx & Engels at work at the time of publishing The Communist Manifesto.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:

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… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest.   

Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922, A Short History of the World, expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all.

The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.

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Without such a programme, Engels had realised, there could not be a united Socialist Party permanently, and every attempt to found one would fail. Indeed, the political independence of the nascent Labour Party from the Liberal Party was always in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution.

Socialism as a Matter of ‘Faith’ – Methodist or Marxist?:

British Socialists possessed a ‘faith’ in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This faith owed as much to Methodism as to Marxism, being based both on Christian principles and the analysis of contemporary society first presented by Marx and Engels. Much of this analysis was modified, however, by Hyndman and the Fabians, by Morris and Blatchford, though it still had a comprehensive reality for those who accepted it. To its working-class adherents, like my own grandparents who founded and campaigned for it in Coventry, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in class consciousness; to middle-class philanthropists, it afforded the consolation that they were working in solidarity with a range of tendencies of social change and progress. As Pelling concluded in his seminal work, the history of the world had often shown the dynamic qualities of a faith devoutly held, like that of the early Christians, the Calvinist reformers and the millenarian sects of the seventeenth century. Faith may feed on illusions, but it is capable of conquering reality.

The fact was that the British working class as a whole had no use for the conception of violent revolution. Any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early years of the industrial revolution. But dislocations of this type were for the most part transitory: a permanent political organization of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively set in motion the movement to form a Labour Party. At the time Keir Hardie (right) retired from the chairmanship of the ILP in 1900, it had captured trade-union support, with the ultimate objective of tapping trade union funds for the attainment of political power.

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But soon the ILP was deeply in debt and was only saved from bankruptcy by the generosity of wealthy supporters such as George Cadbury, who, as a Quaker, appreciated its stance against the Boer War. With Hardie’s re-election to Parliament, and the reaction against imperialism, the ILP’s position steadily improved, and it began to build itself up again and gained fresh recruits. By 1906 it was as strong as it had not yet the full force of the Socialist revival of that time. The Labour Representation Committee was a pressure group founded in 1900 as an alliance of socialist organisations and trade unions, aimed at increasing representation for labour interests in the Parliament. The Socialists were a minority force within it, and even after the formation of the Labour Party and its adoption of Socialism as its political creed in 1918, many within the party were hostile to it as an ideology.  There is little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party, which most of them had belonged to in the past if the Liberals had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working classes among their Parliamentary candidates.

All along, there was little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party if that party had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working class among their Parliamentary candidates. Again and again, it was the fault of the official Liberal Party constituency caucuses that this did not happen; and it was the behaviour of these that set many of the workers’ leaders thinking in terms of a separate party. Even Keir Hardie’s revolt at Mid-Lanark in 1888 had been directed, not against Gladstone’s policies, but against the system by which the local association chose its candidate. The subsequent success of the ILP was largely due to the failure of its rivals, the Labour Electoral Association, to make any satisfactory terms with the Liberal Party for the fuller representation of Labour. Its leader, Threlfall, had been forced to admit the complete failure of its policy in 1894:

It is a curious commentary upon this ‘ideal system’ that of the thirteen Labour members representing England and Wales in the present House, four ran in opposition to, or without recognising the existence of the caucus, five represent constituencies where the miners absolutely dominate the position … and only four either captured the caucus or out-generalled it. It is … a waste of time to advise the working classes to attend … they regard it as a middle-class machine; they have neither the time nor the inclination to compete with the wire-pullers who work it, and they have a decided objection to being made the puppets of anyone. It has served its purpose, and it has carried the people through one state of its development: but as it exists today it is too narrow and too much hampered with class prejudice to be a reflex of the expanding democratic and labour sentiment.

Herbert Gladstone, later to become the Liberal Chief Whip, also recognised that the constituencies, for social, financial and trade reasons are extremely slow to adopt Labour candidates. The Fabians also found that their attempts to ‘permeate’ the associations with potential candidates were met with the refusal of the moneyed men to finance the caucus. The principal reason why money was required was that there was no system for the payment of MPs. This was a reform that the Liberal leaders might have taken up much earlier than they did, thus removing a motivating factor in the support given by smaller unions to the idea of a separate Labour Party. As early as 1897, E. Cowey, a prominent Lib-Lab leader of the Yorkshire Miners moved a resolution at the 1897 TUC in favour of State payment of MPs, saying that:

… money was still the golden key that opened the door to a seat in the House of Commons. Only large and powerful societies could … afford to keep their representatives in such a responsible and expensive position. … The payment of members was absolutely necessary to the success of the Labour movement.

But it was not until 1911, after the Osborne Judgement, that the Liberal Party gave this priority and passed it into law; in the meantime, the smaller unions had already wedded themselves to the idea of a separate Labour Party. For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why the Liberal Party failed to retain the popularity that it had once enjoyed among the ‘responsible’ leaders of the trade unions. As Ramsay MacDonald observed to Herbert Samuel, We didn’t leave the Liberals: They kicked us out and slammed the door in our faces. As the LEA faded away after 1895-96, the ILP steadily asserted itself as the hope of the working-class for parliamentary representation. Thus, the early components of the Labour Party formed a curious mixture of political idealists and hard-headed trade unionists: of convinced Socialists and loyal, but disheartened Gladstonian Liberals.

The Establishment of the Parliamentary Labour Party:

The great difficulty the LRC had to face was the maintenance of an independent political line by all its members. Richard Bell, one of the only two MPs representing it in 1900 Parliament, saw no need to hold himself aloof from the Liberals, and in 1904-5, when he refused to sign the Labour Party constitution, he had to be expelled. There was similar trouble with the three Labour MPs elected at by-elections before 1906: two of them, Shackleton and Henderson were reprimanded in 1904 for appearing in support of a Liberal by-election candidate. It was only in 1906, with the election of a substantial group of thirty MPs who drew a regular salary from the LRC, that the Labour Party was established as a genuine parliamentary party. Part of the problem had been the financial weakness of the Socialist societies as compared with the trade unions. Even in 1901, before many of the big trade unions switched their allegiance, the societies made up less than one-sixteenth of the total affiliated party membership. They were further weakened by the secession of the SDF and by the Fabian Society losing respect over its support for jingoism; the ILP was also, once more, on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1906, it contributed to the LRC based on a nominal sixteen thousand members, and the Socialist societies’ proportion of the LRC’s contributing membership had sunk to one-fiftieth.

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Above: A Liberal Party rally during the 1906 General Election. Though often rowdy, rallies were vital in mobilising voters. As the early twentieth century progressed, political parties made increasing use of the new forms of mass media: radio and newsreel, in addition to newspapers and journals.

Furthermore, many of the political difficulties of the Labour Party’s early years arose from the fact that the ILP, although committed to the line of independence, was nevertheless sympathetic to the Liberal Party in policy terms. It favoured Free Trade over Chamberlain’s policy of Protection and was fiercely opposed the Education Act of 1902, which established state-controlled elementary schools, as did most Nonconformist supporters of both Liberal and Labour causes. Sidney Webb had had a role in the design of this act, but the Manchester Guardian was able to say of the 1901 ILP Conference that: What must strike a Liberal … is … how much of the proceedings are devoted to the advocacy of traditional Liberal principles.

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After Champion was finally discredited, the former Liberals had it all their own way in the ILP’s leadership. Ramsay MacDonald, whom Hardie described as the party’s greatest intellectual asset, sided with the Liberals against the Fabian Socialists on almost every immediate issue of the time; and Hardie, who had been much more friendly to the Radicals since the outbreak of the South African War, in October 1901, publicly advocated a frank, open and above-board agreement … for well-defined purposes with the anti-war Liberals. Eighteen months later Hardie was apparently prepared to connive at MacDonald’s secret electoral understanding with the Liberal whips. With both the leaders and the rank-and-file of the Socialist wing showing little enthusiasm for the pacifist stance of MacDonald and Hardie, the non-Socialist elements gravitated further towards an alliance with the anti-war Liberals. Between 1903 and 1906 the new party machine had been brought into existence, and whatever the political views of its officers, it soon began to build up among them a vested interest in its maintenance, which has continued through to the present day, despite immense strains at times.

The officials of the great trade unions had made up their minds in favour of having a distinct party of Labour, and so long as their industrial strength continued to grow, the strength of the political organisation would also increase. In the pre-war years which followed, however, there were doubts about the value of political action, and the new industrial unions absorbed ‘syndicalist’ ideas from across the continent and the USA. These were often born out of a traditional distrust of ‘leaders’ within the movement which was often stoked by personal feuds between them as well as disagreements on policy; there were also stresses and strains arising out of wars, rumours of war and revolutions in Europe. Some of the unions, especially the Miners’ Federation, ‘the Fed’, suffered from the peaks and troughs of the international trade cycle, resulting in further radicalisation. Others among the ‘new unions’ of 1889 became more moderate as they became more established. In the thirty years of its life, the new party increased its aggregate poll and share of the vote in every General Election it fought. Despite the persistence of its plurality of ideas and interests, or perhaps because of it, the essential unity of the party remained intact. As Pelling concluded:

The association of Socialist faith and trade-union interest, of hope for an ideal future and fear for an endangered present, seemed on the point of disruption at times: yet it survived, for a variety of reasons … because in the years before the party’s birth there had been men and women who believed that the unity of the working-class movement, both in industry and politics, was an object to be striven for, just as now most of their successors regard it as an achievement to be maintained.

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In British politics as a whole, the electoral system underwent profound changes over the early twentieth century. In 1900, only seven out of ten adult men (and no women) were qualified to vote. Four million men were excluded from the franchise and there were nearly half a million plural voters, including around two thousand men with four or more votes. Despite the continued restrictions on the franchise,  the SDF continued to field independent socialist candidates. The picture above was taken during the Haggerston by-election of July 1908 and shows a suffragette, ‘Miss Maloney’ speaking from a Clarion Van in the cause of the SDF candidate, Herbert Burrows. During the five-day campaign in the safe Liberal seat, the van was parked outside the Liberal Party HQ. Burrows was a popular figure in East London, where he had helped Annie Besant organise the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant and May’s factory. The issue of female suffrage was a strong factor in the campaign, and the Liberal candidate, Warren, had the support of Mary MacArthur’s National Union of Women Workers. However, many notable suffragettes, including the Pankhursts, were opposed to his candidature, because he was a supporter of Asquith. The result brought a victory for the Tory, Rupert Guinness, the brewer, with Burrows finishing in third place with half the votes gained by Warren.

After the ‘Landslide’, Erosion & the Rise of Labour:

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Above: The Bethnal Green by-election of 1914. Door-to-door canvassing was, at it still remains, an important aspect of electioneering. Though women did not get the vote until 1918, this candidate seeks support on the doorstep from a female shopkeeper. His attention is an early indication of the growing importance of women at election-time.

The Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith had initiated, between 1906 and 1914, a series of social and political reforms of a far-reaching character. But the emphasis here is placed upon the period 1914-22 in identifying the role of the Labour Party concerning Liberal decline. Whether Dangerfield’s idea of the ‘strange death of Liberal England’ between 1910 and 1914 is a valid thesis is still strongly debated among historians. Its significance lies in its identification of the basic strains upon Liberalism caused by the political and industrial crises. Liberalism was, and still is (at least to some extent), an ideology of individual and social conscience. It was the 1914-18 War which tested that conscience rather than the earlier threats. The War also brought about an independent Labour representation in Parliament, a result of the breakdown of the Gladstone-MacDonald Pact of 1903. The nature of ‘total war’ brought many basic Liberal principles into question. It led to the leadership of Asquith being challenged first with the creation of a more broadly based coalition in May 1915 and then being superseded following the split with Lloyd George in December 1916. For the Liberal Party, this meant a rift, never to be healed, between Asquithian and Coalition Liberals.

Universal male suffrage was achieved in 1918, when, after a long struggle, women over the age of thirty were also permitted to vote. In 1928, the age limit was lowered to twenty-one, equal with men. The principle of single-member, equal-sized constituencies was accepted in 1885, though it was not completely achieved until 1948. Voting behaviour also changed significantly. Most obviously, Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two major political parties after 1918. The beginnings of this change, which took effect on a largely local and regional basis, can be seen in the map of the 1918 General Election, shown below. In 1918, British politics was based upon the relationship between the Liberal and Conservative parties. They were, in many ways, sides of the same coin. They accepted both the logic of consensus politics and the benefits of a capitalist society.

John Buchan, the Conservative politician and writer, described the 1918 General Election as a ‘blunder’.  He claimed that Statesmen, who had criticised soldiers harshly for their blindness, were now in their own province to be no less myopic. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. For the sitting members, the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons in the preceding May on a criticism of the Government by a distinguished staff-officer, one which was neither factious or unfair. Those who had remained ‘docile’ were given ‘coupons’ to fight the election on behalf of the Coalition Government, but the ‘malcontents’ were outlawed. The coupon candidates swept the board, giving the Government a huge working majority with 484 members; Labour returned fifty-nine members, and the non-coalition Liberals were reduced to little more than a score of seats. But although this was a landslide for Lloyd George, that victory for ‘the man who won the war’ should not blind us to the poor performance of the Asquithian Liberals, the vulnerability of many of the Coalition Liberals with their seats in industrial working-class areas to Labour advance and the 22.2 per cent of the total vote received by the Labour Party. ‘Fusion’ between Coalition Liberals and Conservatives seemed possible in 1919-20, the creation of a ‘centre’ party to counter the reactionary right and the revolutionary left, but Lloyd George did not grasp this opportunity and by 1921 it was too late.

The result of the ‘coupon election’ was one of the least representative parliaments in British history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official Opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, ‘a chamber of commerce’. It was an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. The election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and in Labour circles in general. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been largely in abeyance during the war, and which could not afford any decline in its status at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutionalism. Above all, it weakened the authority of Britain in the coming peace councils. Lloyd George went to these councils bound by extravagant election pledges. Overall, the first three decades of the century witnessed the development of class-based voting, with the Labour support concentrated in areas of heavy industry in Wales, the Midlands and North of England and Central Scotland, while the Conservatives held a near-monopoly of seats in the rural South of England, and the Liberals held on to the more sparsely-populated constituencies in the ‘Celtic fringes’ of Wales and Scotland and, to begin with, the more rural areas of East Anglia, Yorkshire and the North-East of England. This set the voting patterns for the rest of the century. In her diary for 1918, Beatrice Webb made a ‘prophetic’ statement:

The Liberal Party which had for years governed the Empire has been reduced to an insignificant fraction with all its leaders without exception at the bottom of the poll. … Lloyd George with his conservative phalanx is apparently in complete command of the situation; as the only alternative Government there stands the Labour Party with its completely Socialist programme and its utopia of the equalitarian state.

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Syndicalists & Socialist ‘Heroes’ of the Unemployed.

Outside Parliament, the Socialists kept up their agitation for ‘Work, not charity’ relentlessly during the first decade of the century, the SDF leading the unemployed on regular sorties into the heart of Mayfair. The photograph below of Westminster unemployed, printed from an SDF lantern slide, gives a vivid picture of the strength of the demonstrators as they ‘invaded’ Berkeley Square in November 1905. The Central Workers’ Committee had organised a vast demonstration of the unemployed. Assembling on the morning of 20 November on the Embankment, contingents marched from all parts of the capital. From Islington, Shoreditch, Hackney and Bethnal Green, unemployed men were led by Dick Greenwood of the SDF and Parson Brooks, the ‘socialist chaplain’. Two thousand walked from Hammersmith and Fulham, stopping on the way in Eaton Square to eat sandwiches provided by the SDF. The Woolwich men, two-hundred-strong, tramped to Greenwich, crossing the river by steamboat. Fifteen hundred arrived from Poplar, organised by the Labour Representation Committee and led by George Lansbury and two of his aldermen. The trade unions supporting the demonstration unfurled their magnificent silk banner with colours of crimson and gold, green and silver, bearing the names of the organised working class; the Gasworkers, Riggers, Coal Porters, French Polishers, Machine Rulers and many more.

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As the march moved away from the Embankment, they were led by the banner of the Westminster Unemployed, as seen in the photograph, with the slogan by heavens our rights are worth fighting for. Curse your charity, we want work was the theme as the SDF with trade union support swept towards the homes of the wealthy. Twenty thousand roared approval at a Hyde Park rally after the ‘incursion’; as Jack Williams told them, you have starved too long. … come out and parade the West End every day. He read a telegram from Keir Hardie urging them not to hide in the slums, but to come out and back us in fighting to win the right to work. Like Hardie, Williams was born into poverty and escaped from the workhouse at the age of ten, climbing the walls of the Hornsey Union to freedom. The other speakers at the rally included the trade union leaders Margaret Bondfield and Harry Gosling, but it was the fiery passion of Jack Williams that had the crowd roaring support. He led the workless to the doors of the rich, marching them on one occasion down Bond Street as policemen stood purposefully with their backs to the jewellers’ windows. On another ‘invasion day’, they marched to Belgrave Square, and caused consternation as a red carpet laid across the pavement for a society wedding was torn to shreds by the boots of the unemployed.

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Earlier in the year, London had seen the arrival of two marches from the Midlands. The first was from Raunds of Northampton, members of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, going in a body to the War Office to protest against cheap labour policy of the department in purchasing service boots at prices below an agreed tariff. Once again, the organiser of the march was a prominent member of the SDF, James Gribble, who had worked in the boot and shoe trade since he was twelve years old. He organised the march on military lines, selecting only the fittest men from hundreds of volunteers and appointing three ‘officers’ to take command of his men who were divided into six companies. With bicycle outriders and a horse-drawn ambulance, General Gribble, as he was dubbed, took no risks of his army falling by the wayside.

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Another procession to London to be commemorated by a series of postcards was the march of four hundred unemployed from Leicester, representing two thousand men and their families. Negatives of the original cards, including the one above, were sent to Leicester Museum by an old socialist, Robert Barnes, who produced the photographs, including that shown above, from those in the possession of the organising secretary of the march, George White. Their journey was arduous and miserable, the men trampling through driving continuous rain, shoes leaking, with topcoats made from sacks and living on bread, cheese and cocoa. The march was supposed to be welcomed in London by the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party at a mass meeting in Hyde Park in support of the Unemployed Bill, which was opposed by many trade unions because it provided that the unemployed under local authority assistance should work at less than the union rate for the public works they undertook. Along the way, the marchers learned that the King had refused their request for an audience and it was a tired, ragged and soddened army that was given shelter and a meat tea by the Salvation Army at Edgware and asked by Ramsay MacDonald to sign the pledge! On Whit Monday the weather brightened and so did the men, marching cheerfully to Parliament Hill Fields (shown above), where MacDonald addressed a crowd on more than six thousand on behalf of the ILP. Keir Hardie also sent a telegram describing their march as ‘heroic’.

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An unusual postcard was that shown above, depicting the SDF agitator Ernest Marklew dressed in broad-arrowed prison clothes, picking oakum, published in 1906. The card is one of a small of socialist commemorative cards that belonged to a pioneer member of the ILP. It is a reminder of the long years of struggle by early socialists to establish the right of free speech in public places. The SDF had long been harassed by police while holding open-air meetings and heavy fines and imprisonment with hard labour had been imposed by middle-class magistrates on socialists accused of obstruction and refusal to pay fines. At Nelson in Lancashire, as well as in other towns and cities including the capital, socialists persisted in speaking at regular ‘pitches’ despite repeated harassment. As one speaker was arrested, another one would take his place, and thousands would turn out every Sunday, some from curiosity, others to lend support, as police fought their way through crowds to drag away speaker after speaker. The secretary of the Nelson branch of the SDF, Bryan Chapman, was also imprisoned during the free speech fight there. Marklew was sent to prison for fourteen days and Chapman got seven days. Arrests and battles followed each Sunday for months and the usual attendance of hundreds for an SDF open-air meeting swelled to thousands. The photograph of Marklew (above) was posted in a studio and sold by the SDF to raise money for the socialist cause.

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In 1908, the Manchester unemployed tried a new tactic to draw public attention to their plight. On Sunday, 14 September, following a meeting of about five hundred workless men, they were urged to march on Manchester Cathedral and the photograph above shows them pouring into the cathedral during worship, watched by the mostly middle-class communicants. The Dean, Bishop Weldon, appeared and agreed to speak on unemployment if they could come back during the afternoon. That afternoon nearly three thousand men assembled in Stevenson Square. About fifteen hundred then marched to the cathedral where the bishop welcomed them but said it wasn’t the province of the church to organise work but, if it was necessary to raise a special fund, many of us will willingly deprive ourselves to aid what is being done. The vicar of Rochdale preached a sermon in which he offered sympathy on behalf of the Church. When the men interrupted, the Dean had to declare the service over. After the service, the leader of the unemployed, a man named Freewood, read the prayer that he had intended to read in the cathedral, ending with…

O Lord we beseech thee to move thy servant Bishop Knox (Archbishop of Canterbury) to see that something more than sympathy is needed and that his influence brought to bear on our Parliament might bear some fruit.

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The rising militancy of the trade unions and the determination of the government to meet the militancy with armed force if necessary was shown first during the Cambrian Combine strike in 1910 in the Rhondda Valleys which led to serious rioting in Tonypandy and clashes with police leading to the death of one miner. Winston Churchill, then Liberal Home Secretary, deployed both cavalry and infantry units, the latter drawing bayonets on picketing miners. I have written about in detail elsewhere on this site. The picture above (top) shows miners waiting to go into a mass ‘Federation’ meeting at the Empire Theatre, Tonypandy in November 1910. Below it, Trehafod miners are pictured picking coal from the slag-heaps during the dispute, which continued into 1911.

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Above: A soup kitchen during the Cambrian Combine strike, 1910-11.

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Tom Mann, one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889, founder of the militant Workers’ Union, first secretary of the ILP and first secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, arrived back in England in May 1910, after eight years of trade union activity in Australia. By that time, he was a labour leader of international renown with a capacity for appearing at the centre of a struggle, as a catalyst for action. He returned from his years abroad as an advocate for syndicalism, or ‘industrial unionism’, as a means of winning working-class power. Within eight weeks of arriving home, he had launched a small publication, The Industrial Syndicalist. He wrote,

… What is called for? What will have to be the essential conditions for the success of any such movement? That it should be avowedly and clearly revolutionary in aim and method. We therefore most certainly favour strikes and we will always do our best to help strikers.

He was not to have to wait long before leading one of the fiercest strikes of the decade. Following his ideas of industrial unionism, by November he had formed the thirty-six unions organising transport into the National Transport Federation. After winning the first stage of the battle against the International Shipping Federation for union recognition, the lesson of solidarity was clear in Liverpool on 28 June 1911, when four thousand dockers came out demanding recognition of the National Union of Dock Labourers. Churchill drafted troops into Liverpool and sent two gunboats up the Mersey with their guns trained on the port. Cavalry and infantry with fixed bayonets were deployed and hundreds of long, stout staves were ordered for the police. Mann answered this by telling the Liverpool strikers:

Let Churchill do his utmost, his best or his worst, let him order ten times more troops to Liverpool, not all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea.

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On 24 August, with all their demands conceded, the strike was called off. The success of the dockers and the railwaymen, during the first national railway stoppage, seemed to inspire a revolt of women workers in the area of London’s dockland during a heatwave in August. The photograph above showing the distribution of loaves of bread outside the Labour Institute in Bermondsey survives as a relic of an uprising of the unorganised. Women and girls walked out of jam, biscuit and pickle factories and marched around Bermondsey calling on other women in the food factories to join them in claiming an increase in their incredibly low wages. Out came the women and girls from the factories with household names; Spillers’, Pearce Duffs’, Hartley’s and Lipton’s, where they worked for as little as seven shillings a week. Laughing, singing, welcoming the escape from the stifling factories, they were joined by Labour leaders including Ben Tillett, the Dockers’ leader (pictured below), Mary MacArthur, Herbert Burrows and Dr Salter addressing fifteen thousand of their fellow strikers in Southwark Park. Within three weeks, increases had been won at eighteen of the twenty-one factories where the women had struck.

It is doubtful whether British society has ever been so beset with contradictions as it was in 1914. A Liberal Government was in power, though only just; it depended on the votes of Labour and Irish Nationalist MPs. A vast programme of social reform lay behind it, but a vast agenda of social unrest awaited it every day. There was widespread working-class unrest; beginning in 1910, there had been a wave of strikes, conducted with extreme bitterness on all sides, sweeping through the country, with every prospect of a final confrontation in the autumn of 1914. Ben Tillett, looking back on these years in 1931, called them:

A strange, hectic period of our economic history! It was a great upsurge of elemental forces. It seemed as if the dispossessed and disinherited class in various parts of the country were all simultaneously moved to assert their claims upon society.

‘Memories and Refections’, 1931.

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The Disunited Kingdom at the Outbreak of War:

It was to a disunited kingdom, with a militant Suffragette movement ‘alongside’ militant trade unionism in Britain, the Army in Ireland in a state of mutiny and Ulster on the verge of civil war over ‘Home Rule’, that war came in August. At once another contradiction was exposed. The ruling Liberal Party was strongly tinged with pacifism, yet it was also the Party which had carried through, under Lord Haldane, the most effective military reforms in British history. The people as a whole were largely unaware of them; indeed it was almost completely unaware of its Army, except when war was actually in progress, or when disagreeable occurrences like the Curragh Mutiny reached the headlines and was the cause of ‘wild delight’ on the opposition Conservative benches in the House of Commons. A powerful counter-note to this was struck by a Labour MP, Colonel Ward, which would nevertheless have been considered dangerous had it been uttered outside the protection of privilege that the House provided. In ringing tones, he warned the Tories that, if they wanted a Civil War, they could have it: If there was to be a mutiny in the Army, it would a mutiny of the working class. Britain was a naval power, much admired around the world as the shield of British democracy, but the Army, characterised in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy, was viewed with far less respect, particularly by the lower middle class and the ‘respectable working class’ and especially in the ‘chapel-going’ areas of Wales and the rural Midlands and ‘West Country’ of England, where ‘red-coats’ were seen as ‘scum’.

For socialists, although not all pacifists, the war was a negation of internationalism, splitting the movement as workers from one country hastened to shoot down the workers of another. On 2 August 1914, just two days before the declaration of war, a huge anti-war meeting was held in Trafalgar Square. Called by the British section of the International Socialist Bureau, a manifesto, whose signatories included Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, was read to the gathering, it ended with the words down with the class rule, down with the rule of brute force, down with war, up with the peaceful rule of the people. Speakers included Will Thorne, Mary MacArthur, Margaret Bondfield, Herbert Burrows and Keir Hardie. Three days later, the Labour Party supported the war. H. G. Wells proclaimed the sword had been drawn for peace. Labour and trade union leaders joined in recruiting campaigns and Will Thorne became a Lieutenant Colonel in the West Ham Volunteers. Workers enlisted in their hundreds of thousands and it was left to the pacifist section of the labour movement together with a handful of true internationalists to preserve the socialist conscience. The ILP published an anti-war manifesto that declared:

Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns we send sympathy and greetings to the German socialists. …

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This was truly a cry out of the darkness.  The slogans on the posters in the recruiting photograph on the right attest to the prevailing jingoism of the times.  In his own constituency of Aberdare, Keir Hardie, the apostle of British socialism was booed as he declared he was going to oppose this war in the interests of civilisation and the class to which he belonged.

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

These words were brave and sincere, but also soon lost in the vortex of hate which soon flowed from the outbreak of war, and a tired and saddened Hardie slowly died as the workers rushed in their hundreds of thousands to join the recruiting queues to enlist for the bloodiest slaughter in the history of mankind to date. The same British workers who had been hailing their German proletarian comrades just days before, now saw them as enemies and aggressors, crying out Down with Germany!

The dominant mood, in the early August days of 1914, was one of euphoria, as can be seen on the faces in the photograph above, taken outside the recruiting office.

The weather seemed to have a lot to do with it.  A mood of national unity was suddenly reborn, one which leading figures in the Labour movement found difficult to resist and remain in leadership. When Ramsay MacDonald (pictured below) resigned as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party because of his own opposition to the war, Henderson was ready to take his place.

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But resignation in these circumstances did not come cheaply either. One contemporary who had met him once before 1914 and had failed to be impressed,  except by his remarkable good looks. M. A. Hamilton had also heard him speak after this and had been considerably impressed. But what had ‘thrilled’ his observers in 1914 was his going out into the wilderness:

We accepted the legend of rejected office, and gloried in it, as in the courage of his assault on Edward Grey. Meeting him in those days at 44 Bedford Square, one could not but admire an aloof dignity in which there was no hint of self-conscious pomp. This admiration steadily mounted, as MacDonald was singled out for attack. He was assailed, incessantly, as a pro-German pacifist who cared nothing for his country. He got all the brick-bats; they were numerous and edgy, and he minded them, a lot.

Arthur Henderson was, according to E. A. Jenkins in his biography, From Foundry to Foreign Office (1944), a typical Northcountryman, who liked to talk about religious or political ‘topics of the hour’. Henderson became a Methodist in 1879 (having previously been a Congregationalist) and became a local lay-preacher. Henderson worked at Robert Stephenson and Sons’ General Foundry Works from the age of twelve. After finishing his apprenticeship there aged seventeen, he moved to Southampton for a year and then returned to work as an iron moulder (a type of foundryman) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After he lost his job in 1884, he concentrated on preaching. In 1892, Henderson entered the complex world of trade union politics when he was elected as a paid organiser for the Friendly Society of Iron Founders and its representative on the North East Conciliation Board. Henderson believed that strikes caused more harm than they were worth and tried to avoid them whenever he could. For this reason, he opposed the formation of the General Federation of Trade Unions, as he was convinced that it would lead to more strikes.

In 1900, Henderson (shown on the left in the photo from 1906, with other leading figures in the party), was one of the 129 trade union and socialist delegates who passed Keir Hardie’s motion to create the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). In 1903, he was elected Treasurer of the LRC and was also elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Barnard Castle at a by-election.

1910 Arthur Henderson.jpgIn 1906, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party and won 29 seats at the general election. In 1908, when Hardie resigned as Leader of the Labour Party, Henderson was elected to replace him. He remained Leader until his own resignation two years later, in 1910. In 1915, following Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s decision to create a coalition government, Henderson became the first member of the Labour Party to become a member of the Cabinet, as President of the Board of Education.

‘Total War’ – the Views of Working-class Men & Women:

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Despite the vitriolic attacks on pacifist politicians like MacDonald at home, there was a more satirical tone expressed in the voice of the Army in its marching songs as it arrived in the fields of Flanders and northern France. This was the Regular Army, the sardonic, unemotional, matter-of-fact voice of the widely-despised ‘Tommy Atkins’ who, as usual, was being expected to do the dirty work, was quite prepared to do it and was not sentimental about it. It had few illusions and its attitudes, had they been aware of them, would have further shocked their fellow-countrymen. In contrast to the general public mood, it was not fuelled by hatred of Germany but, in true mercenary spirit, it would have been equally ready to fight the French. Its motto was, We’ll do it. What is it? Sixty per cent of the men in the ranks of the 1914 British Expeditionary Force were reservists, called back to the colours. For many of them, their return to Army life was a distressing uprooting from their homes and occupations. Yet theirs was also an odd satisfaction in obeying the call.

But the Regular Army, even with its reservists, was simply not large enough for the needs of continental war. There would need to be something else, and this need was quickly perceived by Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War. Out of this perception came the ‘Kitchener Armies’ or ‘New Army’, an extraordinary manifestation of patriotism which brought over 2.25 million volunteers into the colours in the first fourteen months of the war. As the Front-line war dragged on over the next three years, the endless casualty lists recorded the toll of human life; the physical destruction mounted day by day. It was not surprising that nerves frayed and revulsion mounted among those who had to endure all these sufferings. To make them endurable, the soldiers invented a class-conscious vocabulary and style of humour all of their own, closely modelled upon that of the ‘old Regulars’, as demonstrated in the following anonymous parody of the parable of the sower:

Some fell by the wayside, and the Sergeant-Majors sprang up and choked them. 

The demand of the generals for more and more young men for the muddy walk to mutilation and death on the Western Front inevitably resulted in the depletion of labour available for industry and the increase in opportunities for women to replace them at home. Of course, there were problems and a degree of resistance especially from male workers in skilled industries such as engineering. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, an all-male union with a long tradition of craft skill, saw the introduction of lower-paid unskilled labour as a threat to post-war job security and wage-rates. The answer was the ‘Shells and Fuses Agreement’ whereby the unions would accept ‘dilution of labour’ for the duration of the war. In effect, the trade unions were asked to accept the introduction of a twelve-hour working day, the unlimited subdivision of jobs, the scrapping of apprenticeship agreements and the introduction of unskilled labour to produce the hardware of war. Safeguards and rights painstakingly fought for by trades unionists over half a century or more were set aside until the end of the war. No similar sacrifice was to be asked of the employers who were enabled to make rich profits by speeding up production and introducing unrestricted unskilled labour at cheap wage-rates.

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Above: Oxide breaking at Beckton Gas Works.

The doubts of trade unionists about the large-scale introduction of female labour into industries were expressed in a composite resolution at the 1915 Trades Union Congress from two craft unions asking for committees to be set up to ensure the replacement of women at the close of the war by more suitable male labour. The real threat, however, was the inequality of pay between men and women and, to their credit, many trade union leaders insisted on equal pay for women doing equal work, achieving some limited success. The government sided firmly with employers against the unions and in June 1915 the new coalition government dropped all pretence at negotiation on the question of existing industrial practices and introduced a Munitions of War Bill to force dilution of labour by unskilled men and women on the unions. The war opened many industries to women and there is no shortage of propaganda-style photographs like the one above, showing women in ‘unladylike’ work, cleaning railway engines, filling shells, and humping coal sacks. Although of an official nature, they do represent women at the kind of heavy industrial work that would not have been readily open to them before the outbreak of the war.

It was the mass participation of women in the War effort – in industry, in the Civil Service, and in the Forces – which produced the result so deeply desired and defiantly demanded by the pre-war Suffragette Movement. In March 1917, the House of Commons passed the Women’s Suffrage Bill by 341 votes to 62, setting out a scheme for electoral reform to come into operation at the end of the War. The motion was moved by Asquith, who, according to The Times’ Michael McDonagh, gave a fine speech recanted the stout opposition which he gave to votes for women before the War. Women, he said, had worked out their own salvation in the War. But, even in the latter stages of the war, women’s participation was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by their menfolk at the Front, nor did they admire how it was sometimes ‘forcibly’ obtained. One soldier’s letter to his wife which was censored from May 1918 was quite threatening on the subject, also perhaps revealing the social conservatism which existed in working-class homes:

Well, I am afraid there will be trouble if they try to take married women into the WAAC. We men can stand a lot, but they are nearing the danger zone when they wish to force our wives into service. Goodness, the damned infernal impudence of wanting our wives! Why, if anyone came for you while I was at home, I’d slit his throat open. I’m not bragging; I’m saying what I mean. How little they understand us, they are running up against trouble with a vengeance; they will find they have signed their death warrant.

Lloyd George’s Visit to Clydeside & Labour’s Socialist Programme:

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While many trade union and Labour leaders who supported the war acquiesced in the increased exploitation of industrial workers, other sections began a wave of resistance, demanding payment of the proper rate for the job where new workers were introduced, controls on company profits and a guarantee that the men away at the front would have jobs waiting for them when they returned after the war. The strongest opposition was led by the Clyde Workers’ Committee, a group of shop stewards elected directly from the shop floor under the chairmanship of Willie Gallacher. The Clyde workers had already conducted a strike for higher pay in February 1915, and the newly formed committee was more than ready for Lloyd George (above) when he travelled to the Clyde at Christmas of that year as Minister of Munitions to plead the case for dilution as a patriotic duty. Against the advice of his officials, Lloyd George was obliged to meet with the shop stewards and hear out their case for workers’ control of the factories. At a meeting in St. Andrew’s Hall held on Christmas Day, he had the experience of having to stand on the platform while the entire audience got to their feet and sang The Red Flag.

The effect of the protests on the Clyde and the continuing agitation by women trade unionists did result in 1916 in an amendment to the Munitions Act which gave statutory force in ‘the rate for the job’ where women did the same skilled work as men. Unions recruited the new women workers and by 1918 the membership of those affiliated to the TUC had risen by well over two million since the outbreak of war, totalling two and a half million. Women and girls who had been unorganised domestic servants, and/ or working-class housewives had been introduced to a range of jobs never before open to them and most importantly, they had been brought into the organised trade union movement for the first time. Even before the end of the war, however, the growing divisions in British society, later to be signalled by the General Strike of 1926, were already widening. In January 1916, the government had arrested Gallacher, Johnny Muir and Walter Bell, the leaders of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, on charges of attempting to cause mutiny, sedition or disaffection among the civilian population. Ernest Bevin, speaking in the Leeds Coliseum on 3 June 1917, joined in the radical trade union war of words with the Coalition Government:

We all know that in the industrial world the capitalists would give us peace tomorrow if we would surrender. But I am not going to surrender. I am not going to be a pacifist in the industrial movement. I believe that even in our own country there will have to be the shedding of blood to attain the freedom we require …

In 1916, David Lloyd George forced Asquith to resign and replaced him as Prime Minister. Arthur Henderson became a member of the small War Cabinet with the post of Minister without Portfolio. (The other Labour representatives who joined Henderson in Lloyd George’s coalition government were John Hodge, who became Minister of Labour, and George Barnes, who became Minister of Pensions.) Henderson resigned in August 1917 after his proposal for an international conference on the war was rejected by the rest of the Cabinet. He then turned his attention to building a strong constituency-based support network for the Labour Party. Previously, it had little national organisation, based largely on branches of unions and socialist societies. Working with Ramsay MacDonald and Sidney Webb, Henderson in 1918 established a national network of constituency organisations. They operated separately from the trade unions and the National Executive Committee and were open to everyone sympathetic to the party’s policies. Henderson lost his seat in the ‘Coupon Election’ of 14 December 1918 but returned to Parliament in 1919 after winning a by-election in Widnes. He then secured the adoption of a comprehensive statement of party policies, as drafted by Sidney Webb. Entitled “Labour and the New Social Order,” it remained the basic Labour platform until 1950. It proclaimed a socialist party whose principles included a guaranteed minimum standard of living for everyone, nationalisation of industry, and heavy taxation of large incomes and of wealth.

Bevin’s ‘Docker’s Breakfast’, Poverty & ‘Poplarism’:

There were mutinies in the armed forces which continued during the period of demobilisation into 1919, reminding the upper classes rather uncomfortably of the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent revolutions on the continent. They were followed by a series of strikes which led The Times (27 September 1919) to proclaim that this war, like the war with Germany, must be a fight to the finish. The civil strife which had arisen towards the end of the war continued principally among the miners, shipbuilders, railwaymen and farm workers, that is, in the declining sections of the economy. Ernest Bevin, pictured below, the national organiser of the Dockers’ Union, used his own experience of poverty and his deep knowledge of and feeling for the dockworkers in presenting the case for higher wages to the Shaw inquiry of 1920. The potatoes are peeled into a chipped enamel bowl, while the little girl watching is wearing boots that must have come from her brother.

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‘The Dockers’ KC’ was an appreciative title won by Ernest Bevin when he argued the case for a sixteen shillings a day minimum wage and de-casualisation of their labour at the Shaw Inquiry in 1920. Bevin, a thirty-nine-year-old national organiser of the Dockers’ Union was given the task of putting the case for the Transport Federation. His performance was brilliant. Though lacking in formal education, he spoke for eleven hours, vividly describing the history, work, poverty, danger of a docker’s life and scoring heavily in exchanges with the Chairman of the Port of London Authority, the wealthy Lord Devonport, an old enemy of dock workers. While the two sides were involved in academic arguments as to whether or not a docker and his family could live on the employers’ proposed wage of three pounds thirteen shillings and sixpence a week, Bevin went shopping in Camden Town. That evening he prepared a ‘docker’s breakfast’ (shown above) and took the plates into court.

When Professor Bowley, the employers’ expert witness, went into the witness box, calculating the precise number of calories on which a man could live and work, Bevin pushed scraps of bacon, bread and fish he had prepared before him and asked the Cambridge professor if that was sufficient for a man who had to carry heavy sacks of grain all day. The witness protested. You have never carried 2cwt bags on your back continuously for eight hours? Bevin fired. The professor answered that he hadn’t, and Bevin then produced a menu from the Savoy Hotel and asked him to calculate the calories in a shipowners’ lunch! The outcome of the Inquiry was a triumph for Bevin, and the court condemned the system of casual labour, awarding a national minimum wage of sixteen shillings a day for a forty-four hour week. Bevin went on, of course, to become a leading figure in the trade union and Labour movement over the next four decades.

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Historians often date Britain’s ‘hungry years’ as beginning in 1929 with the ‘Great Depression’, but for many workers, they never had a beginning, since the depression, unemployment and hunger were a permanent condition of their lives and one from which they received only occasional relief. In March 1921, Poplar, a borough in London’s East End, blighted with mass unemployment, casual dock labour, rotten housing and slum landlords, reached a breaking point. It was hardly equitable that a rich borough such as a Westminster, where a penny rate raised more than thirty thousand pounds, maintained only eleven hundred on outdoor relief, while Poplar, where a penny rate raised only three thousand pounds had to maintain forty-four thousand. The East End of London as a whole, with only a quarter of the paying capacity of the West End, had seventeen times the liability. Faced with a massive increase in the rate, a burden the poor could not carry, the Council refused to cut the level of relief to the unemployed and decided not to pay the quarter of a million pounds due to the central authority, the London County Council, carrying a rate of four shillings and fourpence in the pound, to meet the needs of the Council and the Board of Guardians.

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This was the essence of the conflict that was to lead to the imprisonment of the mayor and the majority of the socialist members of the Council and the introduction of a new word into the English language, ‘Poplarism’. Summoned to appear at the High Court on 29 July the Council marched in procession from Bow with the mace bearer at their head, the mayor wearing his chain of office and all beneath a banner saying ‘Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison’. Following the councillors, who included Edgar Lansbury and his father, the ‘uncrowned King of the East End’, the kindly George Lansbury, came the people of Poplar. The court ordered payment, the councillors refused and in September, nearly the whole of the Council was sent to prison for contempt. Fifteen thousand marched to Holloway, many of the women carrying babies (as shown in the photo above) where Minnie Lansbury and four other women were taken. While Herbert Morrison deplored their actions and J. H. Thomas called the councillors ‘wastrels’, the fight continued even inside the prison.

A council meeting was held in Brixton Prison, the women being brought from Holloway to attend. Outside, ten thousand enrolled in the Tenants’ Defence League and pledged to refuse to pay rent if the councillors asked. The High Court released the councillors in October so that they could attend a conference to discuss the whole matter. The result was a victory for Poplar. The Council had made their first charge the care of the sick, orphaned, aged, widowed, workless and homeless and forced the introduction of a Bill equalising rate burdens between the rich and poor. The two photographs of Poplar residents and councillors are taken from an album presented to one of the councillors at a Council meeting the following year. The caption to the picture of the Poplar women carrying the loaves given by the Guardians is entitled ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ while the photograph of the councillors features Alderman Hopwood with his pipe, ‘surrounded by his bodyguard’.

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The photograph above shows the outing of Norland Ward Women’s Group of the North Kensington Labour Party. The woman on the left in the front row is carrying the Party’s red flag and most of the group are wearing red rosettes. The substantial-looking Labour Club proclaims ‘Socialism’ and ‘Recreation’ and the women in their prettiest dresses have no doubt earned their break from the shop, factory, housework and local canvassing for the party. Charabanc day trips were a popular working-class leisure activity during the 1920s and the elected representatives of the Labour and trade union movement enjoyed them as much as the membership. Charabanc pictures from the early twenties are common and include those of the annual outings of workers from scores of factories on jaunts to Dartmoor and Epping Forest. The charabancs chugged along at a maximum of twelve miles per hour.

(to be continued…)

 

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‘Socialism’ & the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900. Part Two – ‘Marxists’, ILP’ers & New Unionists.   Leave a comment

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Keir Hardie – The Harbinger of the Independent Labour Party, 1887-88:

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Keir Hardie, who was to play a major role in the political developments of the next three decades, was born into grinding poverty in 1856 in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Kerr, a farm servant who later married a ship’s carpenter named David Hardie. The first years of his life and his early career among the Ayrshire miners are the stuff of legend, but here we are concerned with how he became a Socialist and his contacts with Marxists in London. He had visited the capital with a miners’ delegation in 1887 and attended several meetings of the SDF, where he was introduced to Eleanor Marx, who in turn introduced him to Engels, who was, by then, critical of both the SDF and the Socialist League in Hardie’s hearing. In the end, he did not join the SDF as he had planned to do before arriving in London, and his reasons for his change of mind are instructive about the state of the Socialist movement in Britain at this time:

Born and reared as I had been in the country, the whole environment of the clubs, in which beer seemed to be the most dominant influence, and the tone of the speeches, which were full of denunciation of everything, including trade unionism, and containing little constructive thought, repelled me.

Hardie’s character and politics were not above and beyond the comprehension of the people from whom he had sprung. On the contrary, he was made of the same stuff as they were, with the same instincts, attitudes, the same religious turns of mind and phrase, the same inability to draw a line between politics and morality, or between logic and emotion. His views had already begun developing under the influence of Henry George, from Liberalism to Socialism; but these views were assimilated into his own life and experience, which was something the London Socialists could not share. As the leader and organiser of a trade union and a federation of unions, weak though these organisations were, Hardie was a valuable recruit to the Socialist cause, and his adhesion brought a less academic and more homely voice to the advocacy of independent labour policy. At the beginning of 1887, he had started a monthly magazine, the Miner, in which he addressed the men in his own blunt style, which contained all the aggressive spirit of economic discontent without any of the catchwords of Marxism:

Party be hanged! We are miners first and partisans next, at least if we follow the example of our “superiors” the landlords and their allies, we ought to be. …

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He was the harbinger of the New Unionists; and it was fitting that, although his career was to be primarily a political one, he should make his entry into national prominence as a trade union delegate. Already he had taken part in political work, as a Liberal; but now, in the autumn of 1887, he was adopted miners’ Parliamentary candidate for North Ayrshire, and in March 1888, when a vacancy occurred at Mid-Lanark, he was selected as miners’ candidate there, but the Liberal Party chose differently. His supporters encouraged him to stand as an independent and he accepted their nomination. The main principle that Hardie stood for, as an independent labour candidate, was the universal one that the working class must build up its own political strength, stand on its own feet and fight its own battles. This note of sturdy independence, which he struck repeatedly in the course of the by-election campaign, had not often been heard in the course of the preceding decade. He was supported by Champion from the SDF office in London, Tom Mann, Mahon, Donald and a host of other Socialists and Radicals who arrived in the constituency of their own accord. But though the canvassing and rallies were vigorous, there was little doubt about what the outcome would be. Hardie was at the bottom of the poll with 617 votes out of the total of seven thousand votes cast. The Liberal candidate was elected, leading the Conservative by nine hundred votes.

It was a disappointing result at the time, but in retrospect, it is seen as an important political turning-point. There and then, there was no reason to suppose that one or other party, Liberal or Conservative, would not allow itself to become the vehicle for labour representation by a gradual process. But the caucus system which operated within the Liberal Party meant that its choice of candidate was firmly in the control of its middle-class members. The failure of the working-class to break through this stranglehold had the concomitant effect that the Liberal Party’s grip on the working-class vote was clearly weakening in the mid-eighties. Yet its leaders still maintained that they served the interests of working people. Champion, for his part, claimed still more strongly his ambitious claim to be the organiser of the ‘National Labour Party’ and Hardie began the task of forming a Scottish Labour Party.

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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The Fabians were also concerned in the task of formulating long-term Socialist policy for the country as a whole. In the autumn of 1888, they organised a series of lectures on The Basis and Prospects of Socialism which were edited by Bernard Shaw and published at the end of 1889, becoming the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism. They provided a distinctive sketch of the political programme of evolutionary Socialism, attracting immediate attention. The first edition at six shillings sold out rapidly and by early 1891, a total of 27,000 copies had been purchased. The seven Fabian essayists, all members of the Society’s Executive, offered a reasoned alternative to the revolutionary Socialist programme. In the first essay, Shaw rejected Marxian analysis of value in favour of a theory of Marginal Utility, asserting the social origin of wealth and reversing the conclusions of laissez-faire political economy from its own premises. In a second essay on the transition to Socialism, Shaw emphasised the importance of the advances towards democracy accomplished by such measures as the County Council Act of 1888. The extinction of private property could, he thought, be gradual, and each act of expropriation should be accompanied by compensation of the individual property-owner at the expense of all.

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Nearly all the Fabian essayists postulated a gradual, comparatively even and peaceful evolution of Socialism, which they regarded as already taking place by the extension of political democracy, national and local, and by the progress of ‘gas and water’ Socialism. They regarded the existing political parties, and especially the Liberal-Radicals, as open to permeation by Socialist ideas. Judged by the circumstances of their time, the most striking omission from their whole general thesis was their failure to recognise the significance of the trade unions and co-operative societies. As Sidney Webb (pictured above)  was later to discover, conclusions could be drawn from the working of these institutions which would dovetail with his general theory of the inevitability of gradualness. Arguing on historical grounds, Webb suggested that Socialism was already slowly winning the day: by Socialism, he meant the extension of public control, either by the State or the municipality.

Annie Besant looked forward to a decentralised society attaching special importance to municipal Socialism. One of the other essayists, Hubert Bland, however,  was hostile on the one hand towards Liberal-Radicalism and on the other towards the ‘catastrophic’ Socialism of the SDF and the Socialist League, but this did not lead him to accept Webb’s view that the extension of State control was necessarily an indication of advance towards Socialism. He could not agree that it was possible to effectively permeate the Radical Left: on the contrary, he predicted, Socialists could expect nothing but opposition from both main parties. His conclusion from this more thoroughly Marxian analysis was that there was a true cleavage being slowly driven through the body politic and that there was, therefore, a need for the formation of a definitively Socialist Party.

Bland’s view was important and, in some ways, future developments confirmed his ideas rather than those of the other essayists. He was certainly more in line with the Championite group, some of whose members were to play a leading role in the foundation of the Labour Party. Among his contemporary Fabian leaders, however, Bland was in a minority of one. The majority, judging national politics from a metropolitan perspective and assuming that the character of Liberalism was the same throughout the country, thought that their policy of permeation was the answer not only for the problems of London County Council but also for the broader sphere of Westminster politics. In the following decades, their association with the metropolitan Liberals was to be the source of great mistrust to the leaders of the growing independent labour movement outside the capital. Consequently, it was not for the immediate political tactics, but for their success in formulating a long-term evolutionary programme, that the Fabians were to be of importance in the eventual foundation of the Labour Party.

Labour Aristocrats, New Unionists & Socialist Internationals, 1889-1894:

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In 1874, the trade union membership recorded and represented at the Trades Union Congress had risen to 594,000; but by the end of that decade it had fallen to 381,000, and it was not until 1889 that the 1874 figure was exceeded. Union membership was almost entirely concentrated among more highly-skilled workers, for the first attempts to organise unskilled industrial workers had been killed off by the depression. The term ‘labour aristocracy’, which was used at the time by Marxists to describe the organised workers, is not inappropriate to point out the contrast between the privileges of their position and the weakness of the great mass of the less-skilled workers below them. Bowler-hatted craft unionists like those seen with their giant painted banner at the opening of the Woolwich Free Ferry in March 1889, shown in the photograph below, enjoyed a measure of respectability and a regular wage, the so-called unskilled lived a precarious existence. Balanced between poverty and absolute destitution, they were feared by the middle classes and despised by skilled and organised trade unionists. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was the third-largest union in Britain by 1890. In 1897-98 it fought long, hard and unsuccessfully for an eight-hour day.

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In London alone, there were four thousand casual workers in the 1890s, and thousands were unemployed, homeless and destitute, a submerged population of outcasts who not only filled the workhouses and doss houses but slept in great numbers in the streets. Two of the SDF lantern slides (below) show differing aspects of homelessness, a picture of women spending the night on an embankment seat, taken at four in the morning, and a scene of men washing in a night shelter. The scene of women sleeping on the Embankment was would have been a common sight at the time. R. D. Blumenfeld, an American-born journalist who came to Britain in the 1880s, recorded, in his diary, his experience of a night on the Embankment on 24 December 1901:

I walked along the Embankment this morning at two o’ clock … Every bench from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge was filled with shivering people, all huddled up – men, women and children. The Salvation Army people were out giving away hot broth, but even this was merely a temporary palliative against the bitter night. At Charing Cross we encountered a man with his wife and two tiny children. They had come to town from Reading to look for work. The man had lost his few shillings and they were stranded …

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Charitable institutions were unable to cope with the vast numbers that sought nightly access to their refuges and many of the outcast lacked even the few coppers required for common lodging houses and ‘dossers’. Others preferred the open streets to the casual ward where they ran the risk of being detained for three days against their will and there were hundreds who would chance exposure to the elements rather than submit to the workhouse. After Trafalgar Square was cleared on Bloody Sunday in 1887, the authorities finally banned the Square to the homeless. But the embankment, with its benches and bridges, continued to be used by mothers with babies in arms, children and old people, all spending the night insulated against the cold by old newspapers and sacks. The thousands who slept out were not for the most part alcoholics but honest, poor, unskilled and casual workers, subject to seasonal and trade fluctuations in employment. Salvation Army General Booth in Darkest London quotes a typical case of a Bethnal Green bootmaker, in hospital for three months. His wife also became ill and after three weeks their furniture was seized for rent due to the landlord. Subsequently, they were evicted. Too ill to work, everything pawned, including the tools of his trade, they became dispossessed outcasts. Not all the ‘dossers’ were out of work; many were simply homeless and earned such poor wages that renting rooms was beyond their means. Records from the Medland Hall refuge showed sailors, firemen, painters, bricklayers and shoemakers among those who sought shelter from the streets of the richest city in the world.

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Elsewhere in the country, there were some anomalies in the divisions of workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’: the Lancashire cotton workers, for example, even though comparatively unskilled, ranked with the ‘aristocracy’, while the Yorkshire woollen workers, probably owing to the greater diversity of their occupations, were almost devoid of organisation. Among the miners, too, the degree of trade unionism varied widely among men of comparable skill in different coalfields. The general labourers and workers in the sweated trades, many of them women, had no unions, and their miserable conditions were at once a cause and a result of their inability to defend themselves. At the bottom of the social heap were the casual labourers, thousands of whom fought daily for work at the gates of London’s docks. The following description of dockers waiting for ‘call on’ was written by Ben Tillett in a little pamphlet entitled A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry in July 1887:

There can be nothing ennobling in an atmosphere where we are huddled and herded together like cattle. There is nothing refining in the thought that to obtain employment we were driven into a shed, iron barred from end to end, outside of which a contractor or a foreman walks up and down with the air of a dealer in cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where they fight like beasts for the chance of a day’s work.

Tillett also told of how these men lived more by accident than design … picking over the rubbish heaps in search of anything eatable and of the furtive storing of refuse rice, the coolies had thrown away. The manager of the Millwall Docks gave evidence at an enquiry, of men who came to work without a scrap of work in their stomachs and gave up after an hour, their hunger not allowing them to continue. They were, said Tillett, Lazaruses who starve upon crumbs from the rich man’s table. On 12 August 1889, two members of Ben Tillett’s little union, the ‘Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association’ which had been formed by twelve men in the Oak Tavern off Hackney Road, met at Wroot’s Coffee House and came to Tillett with a demand that they should declare a strike at the South West India Dock. Though Tillett had campaigned for two years at the docks with evangelical fervour, the demand surprised him: Was it possible to strike with men who shivered with hunger and cold, bullied and intimidated by the petty tyrants who took a delight in the brutalities of the call on? The men left Tillett in no doubt as to the answer. Meetings were held under the windows of the dock offices and seethed with tumult. The demands included the raising of wages to sixpence an hour, The full round orb of the dockers’ tanner, as John Burns described it, eightpence an hour for overtime and a reduction in the number of ‘call-ons’, which kept hungry men hanging about the dock gates all day, often in the wet and cold awaiting the next chance to catch the foreman’s eye.

The strike spread rapidly throughout the docks, stevedores, boilermakers, coal heavers, ballast-men, lightermen, painters and carpenters all supporting the dock labourers. With only seven shillings and sixpence in his union funds. Tillett set about raising money to provide relief for the striking dockers and their families. Daily marches with banners and bands around the docks and to the City served to keep up morale, spread the news and keep money pouring into the jingling collecting boxes. From the strike committee headquarters at The Wade’s Arms, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, John Burns, Harry Orbell and Henry Champion planned the distribution of money. Champion had been expelled from the SDF in November 1888 and threw himself eagerly into leading the practical relief work among the strikers. He persuaded the strike committee to issue one shilling food tickets and got local tradesmen to honour them. Tom Mann took charge of the task and told in his memoirs of how he faced the first crowd of hungry dockers:

I put my back against one of the doorposts and stretched out my leg, with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men and passed each man in under my leg!

Tillett wrote of this event:

I can see Tom now, with his back against the door of Wroot’s Coffee House, keeping back a yelling, hungry mob, while Nash and Smith shivered in the pay room. 

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Eight relief centres were established in the East End of London, tickets being issued on production of a union card. This was not only a rational way of issuing relief but served to build the union, twenty thousand cards being issued for the twopenny membership fee. Contemporary reports tell of women and children feeding in the streets and the photograph above shows women with their meal tickets pinned to their hats and dresses, feeding their children outside one of the union centres. At the peak of the struggle, twenty-five thousand meal tickets a day were being issued by the union. Eventually, on 14 September 1889, a settlement favourable to the dockers was reached. The story of the strike for the ‘dockers’ tanner’ is legendary and the engravings from The Illustrated London News of 1889 and a few contemporary photographs of the strikers are familiar enough. However, the photograph from the SDF slide set, entitled women and children of dock strikers being fed in the street was not published until 1980. It is a rare relic from that epic fight which heralded the ‘new unionism’ and the organisation of the unskilled.

The Tea Operatives Union which began the strike with a few hundred members finished it with a few hundred thousand and the ground was prepared for the building of the great Dockers’ Union, ‘the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. The photograph below shows victorious strikers, greeting the end of the strike, one of the most significant in the history of British trades unionism. The Socialists as a whole gained considerably in prestige from their association with the New Unionism which developed from the late 1880s onwards. The example of devoted leadership that they gave was only rarely spoilt by errors of judgement. As Champion himself recognised at the time, it was not for the purity of their Socialism that they were respected by the workers, but for their willingness to throw themselves into the day-to-day tasks of union organisation. But the political leaders at the dockside were careful not to take advantage of the strike to advance the Socialist cause. Hyndman had wanted John Burns to display a red flag during the dock strike, but Burns had refused because he knew it would be inappropriate to do so.

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John Burns resigned from the SDF after the strike but still regarded himself as a Socialist, and the movement could only gain from his popularity, and that of Thorne and Mann, who now occupied key positions in the New Unions. Furthermore, the principles of New Unionism were socialistic in tendency, basing their tactics on the principle of advancing the interests of the working class as a whole, which is clearly indicated by their willingness to accept all types of workers for membership. This brought the new unionists into sympathy with the basic conception of Socialism and made them favourable to the Socialist demand for an independent labour party in Parliament. The new unionists had nothing to lose and a world to gain by a policy of political action such as the Socialists were advocating. It soon became clear to them that the gains they made by industrial action were not easy to maintain. The success of the Championite Socialists in taking the lead in the formation of the new unions was largely due to the lukewarm attitude of the established ‘craft’ unions. The echoes of New Unionism were meanwhile resounding throughout the country, and struggles of less importance but sometimes greater intensity and bitterness were waged in provincial towns and ports. The letters of Engels reveal something of the intense excitement of the period, especially one he wrote to Sorge in December 1889:

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to ‘Tussy’ (Eleanor Marx) women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for.

But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlikethe old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long. …

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Engels’ optimism was based not only on the success of the Socialists in capturing the new unions in London but also on the successful reconstitution of the ‘International’ in the autumn of 1889. There had been two separate Socialist and Labour congresses held simultaneously in Paris: one was backed by the orthodox followers of Marx and Engels, and also attended by a number of British Socialists including William Morris and Keir Hardie; the other, summoned by French reformists opposed to the Engels group, was attended not only by the Fabians and by a number of the craft unionists, but also by Hyndman and other members of the SDF. It was due to Engels’ hostility that the SDF delegates were forced to consort with conservative trade-union leaders and the foreign reformists rather than with the Marxists.

Fortunately, however, for the sake of the future of the movement, the two congresses finally joined together to form the Second International. As a consequence, this was much more real as an organisation than its predecessor of two decades before, embracing strong parties from a variety of countries. One notable outcome of the foundation of the Second International was the decision to make a demonstration of labour solidarity on May Day, 1890. The London Socialists busied themselves with preparations for a great demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May, the result being a remarkable display of the forces of New Unionism and its solidarity with the Socialism. The attendance was impressive, and Engels, who watched the scene from the top of a goods-van, was almost beside himself with enthusiasm. He proclaimed in the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung:

On May 4th, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. … The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. 

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

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But in his more sober moments, Engels was well aware of what he called the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. Although the new unionists made an impact on the TUC in 1890, they were not sufficiently numerous to outvote the craft unions, most of whom retained their prejudices and patronising attitude towards the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Socialist League in London was falling apart. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax were feeling, as Hyndman had done, that Socialism should engage with the parliamentary system. The withdrawal of this ‘Parliamentary’ element caused the Socialist League to fall more and more into the hands of the Anarchists, who voted Morris out of his role as editor of The Commonweal at the 1890 conference.

016 (3)Morris himself became increasingly uncomfortable with their activities until in November 1890 he decided to cut his losses and withdraw from the League, together with the Hammersmith branch, which remained loyal to him. Without his funds and moderating influence, the League then disintegrated. Morris continued to work for Socialism, but at a reduced rate which was all his health permitted; he chaired meetings of what had become the Hammersmith Socialist Society and continued to speak at outdoor meetings. He still hoped for a united British Socialist Party, and negotiated, unsuccessfully, to bring that about in 1892. He was pleased with the election of three ‘Independent Labour’ MPs, regarding…

… this obvious move forward of the class feeling as full of real hope. 

The growth of the waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed spectacularly with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded membership had penetrated deepest into Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and into South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, rural Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise of agricultural trade unions in the early 1870s. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer co-operatives. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire had 112, followed by Durham (28), the Northamptonshire footwear district (21), Northumberland (18), and Cheshire and Derbyshire (17). At this stage, there were only six societies within a twelve-mile radius of central London.

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Wherever the Chartist legacy had been strong, and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, co-operation took root.  Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made it compatible with popular pleasures like football and seaside excursions, as more people could afford to save and spend, or to save in order to spend. Co-operation became a mass movement and by 1899, 1,531 co-operative societies in Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a ‘co-operator’. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time. Co-operatives and the trade unions rarely collaborated, except when local societies gave special support to strikers.  As a widely supported movement which drew in women as well as men, the Co-operative Movement, with its proto-feminist Women’s Guild, had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade unions. The relaxation of draconian anti-union legislation in the 1870s and rising affluence among unskilled workers in the 1890s had enabled them to take part in the union movement, while co-operative societies encouraged ‘Self-help’ by dividing profits among their members. The geographical influence of the two movements is best understood if they are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

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The photograph above shows the Radcliffe Co-op in Lancashire, typical of the early co-operators and their belief in Robert Owen’s great discovery that the key to a better society was ‘unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life’. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton in for inspiration and advice. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished with reading rooms, educational classes, the Women’s Guild interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce and a growing number of branches.  

The Advent of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-95:

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Although aloof from the fray over these early years of the 1890s, the fact that Morris was known to be speaking not for one faction but for the interests of Socialism as a whole actually increased his influence.

At the beginning of 1893, the inaugural conference of the Independent Labour Party took place at the Bradford Labour Institute. The hall’s history was symbolic of working-class causes both religious and political to date. It had begun life as a Wesleyan Reform Chapel and had later been used by the Salvation Army. It was surrounded by the mills and warehouses on which the trade of Bradford depended. Against this backdrop, the opening of the conference presented like a scene from a novel depicting British political history.

William Morris was not there, but there were certainly many faces to be seen which belonged to characters who had already played major roles in labour politics including Mahon, Donald, and Aveling, Hardie, Tillett and Shaw. Hardie was elected to the chair, and he immediately faced difficulties over whether the two London Fabians should be admitted as delegates. Shaw was one of these, but the ‘permeation’ tactics of the Fabians were unpopular among the rank-and-file of independent labour, especially as it was widely known that they had no intention of abandoning their positions of influence inside the Liberal Party. On the night before the conference, Shaw had addressed a meeting of the provincial Fabian delegates and had suggested that the whole idea of immediately establishing an independent party was premature. Reports of his speech circulated overnight, so it was not surprising that the credentials of these two delegates were disputed and only approved by a margin of two votes. Thereafter, Shaw’s contribution to the discussions was of considerable value. The principal questions with which the conference had to deal were the choice of the party’s name, the drafting of its constitution and programme and the election of an executive. The choice of name was obvious to the English delegates, but the Scottish Labour Party colleagues the title of ‘Socialist Labour Party’. Joseph Burgess and Katherine Conway argued that the new party had to appeal to an electorate which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism. Ben Tillett supported this point, adding that:

He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were Socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed.

Tillett followed up this attack on the Hyndmanites with a gratuitous one on the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists, a remark which offended Eduard Bernstein, the able London correspondent of the German Social-Democratic paper, who was later given the right to reply. The decision to leave the title as ‘Independent Labour Party’ reflected an awareness of the origins and roots of the party in the local labour unions and parties, some of which were not explicitly committed to Socialism. The primary object of these bodies was to build a Parliamentary party on the basis of a programme of labour reform, and the principal allies of this party were to be, not the existing Socialist societies, but the trade unions, whose leaders were in most cases still to be converted to the independent policy. In this decision the fundamental differences between the ILP and the earlier Socialist societies were revealed: the means of political action were regarded as of primary importance, and the theoretical approach gave way to the practical. But this did not mean that the party was not to be a Socialist party. The proposal to define its object as to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was carried as a substantive motion by an almost unanimous vote. The conference was evidently strongly Socialist; this was confirmed when the programme came to be discussed and, with the help of Aveling and Shaw, the Marxist and the Fabian, it provided the new party with a concise and clear-cut programme without inconsistency or divergence from basic Socialist doctrine.

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The Bradford Conference had raised high hopes of the new Independent Labour Party, which was intended to rival the Liberals and Conservatives in the fight for Parliamentary power. But the reality of its position fell far short of what its supporters at first imagined was possible. The ILP was able to rely on many of the remnants of the Socialist League, especially in Yorkshire, but the SDF had strengthened itself at the expense of the League in London and had also rapidly extended its hold in Lancashire. In June 1893, the SDF claimed sixty-two branches, a total larger than ever before except for its temporary boom during the strikes of 1887; in August 1894, the official total was ninety-one. Although never as large as the ILP it was always a formidable competitor.

Champion manoeuvred his way back into the political limelight in association with Maltman Barry, described by one rival as that most Marxian of Tories and Toryest of Marxians, now openly boasting his connection with the Conservative Party, as its paid agent, in a letter to the Workman’s Times of September 1892, which made him a sinister influence to the purists of independent politics. The national press was overwhelmingly hostile to the ILP and anxious to misrepresent any indiscretion or sign of weakness, and the agents of both the ‘great’ parties were seeking to break down the policy of independence by offers of financial assistance or by promises designed to satisfy personal ambitions.

Fortunately for the ILP, despite its internal financial and organisational difficulties, political factors in the country were strengthening its position. Hardie’s vigorous propaganda, up and down the country as well as in Parliament was breaking through and stiffening the members’ attitude on the issue of strict independence. The political situation was one of which he could take advantage since the Liberal government were showing no signs of dealing with the relief of the unemployed or of accomplishing important reforms. The problem of unemployment was very severe, with distress on a national scale, and Hardie calculated, with good reason, that there were over a million out of work. Throughout the country, local ILPs took the initiative in forming distress committees to provide food and shelter for the needy and to press public bodies to assist by offering relief work. The SDF methods of organising demonstrations of the unemployed were revived, and many industrial towns echoed to the tramp of their marching feet and the pathetic sound of their song, The Starving Poor of Old England.

But it did not take very much to persuade the Fabians to turn around once more and reassert their alliance with the Liberals. The ILP, they were convinced, could not succeed without official trade-union support. It was in vain that Hardie attempted to explain to them the fighting attitude of the local ILP branches in the north of England. He took part, with Tom Mann, in an informal Fabian-ILP conference in January 1895, and also lectured to the Society in London, telling them:

To reach the masses of the people, something more than academic education and discussion on abstract propositions is necessary. The workers will only rally to a fighting policy.

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After Hardie’s lecture, Curran reminded those present that London is not England, a reminder that, for all their claims of intellectual superiority, they often seemed incapable of fully appreciating. In the 1895 General Election, although the ILP fielded twenty-eight candidates, polling 34,433 votes (1% of the total votes cast), and failed to get a single MP elected. Even Keir Hardie, standing again in West Ham, and his two colleagues lost their seats.

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‘Merrie England’ – Popularising Socialism in the Countryside, 1894-95:

Allied to the ILP in the North and Midlands, journals like The Clarion had a wide appeal because of its brilliant journalism. Robert Blatchford founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of Socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford’s series of articles inviting John Smith, the typical working man, to join the ranks of the Socialists was published as Merrie England, and when issued as a book it sold twenty thousand copies at a shilling each. Wanting to reach out further he issued a penny edition issued in 1894 and sold three-quarters of a million copies in a year, giving a great lift to the circulation of the Clarion, sales of which reached sixty thousand. The features of Merrie England that made it so popular were its simplicity and directness of style, and its engaging enthusiasm for the ordinary pleasures of life that had been submerged by industrial civilisation, as the following extract from Blatchford’s writing demonstrates:

I would stop the smoke nuisance. … I would have towns rebuilt with wide streets, with detached houses, with gardens and fountains and avenues. … I would have public parks, public theatres, music halls, gymnasiums, football and cricket fields, public halls and public gardens for recreation and music and refreshment. …

015 (2)How could all this be done? Blatchford demonstrated that the working class, who were seven-eighths of the population, received little more than a third of the national income. He also argued, principally on the basis of an article by the Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin, that Great Britain and Ireland could be self-sufficient in agricultural production. The whole problem, therefore, he maintained, could be solved by nationalising the land, industry and commerce, and by limiting industrial production to the extent actually required for the supply of the people of Britain. Thus the doctrines of Marxian Socialism, as transmitted to Blatchford through the agency of Hyndman and the Fabians, were transformed into a policy of national autarky which, at the time it was propounded, could hardly be taken seriously by those who knew anything about Britain’s position in world trade. But the economic arguments in the book did not really matter. Blatchford was not equipped to deal with the practical problems of political administration. He was, however, in his element as a popular journalist who could stir the public imagination with his vivid writings.

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Blatchford found other ways, too, of exploiting the interest in Socialism. Clarion Clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of Socialism to countryside villages. Blatchford’s supporters became known as ‘Clarionettes’ and in 1894 he founded the Clarion Scouts, bodies of young Socialist pioneers who were to spread their faith by such original methods as leaflet raids by bicyclists. These propagandising methods both improved the Clarion‘s circulation and spread the idea of Socialism in directions where it had not previously penetrated. He encouraged the formation of a Glee Club, a Camera Club and a Field Club, and for a time ran a special supplementary paper, the Scout, to support their activity. These were followed by numerous cycling clubs. One reason for the establishment of the Clarion Scouts had been to find a way of bringing Socialism to the agricultural areas. In 1895 a few Manchester Clarionettes borrowed a horse and van and set off for Tabley in Cheshire to camp with eight Clarion supporters. The idea of the Clarion vans was born, and, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature the vans were mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time, until the last one, designed by Walter Crane (1845-1916), the great Socialist artist-craftsman and William Morris’ associate, was built and dedicated in the market square in Shrewsbury, photographed below, just months before the First World War began.

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Blatchford’s conception of Socialism was a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and the 1895 ILP annual conference followed his lead by adopting a long and detailed list of agricultural reforms including nationalisation of land values and placed these prominently at the head of its programme. These policies aimed at catching the eye of the rural voter, but it was all to little avail: the general picture of the party’s activity in the first year of its existence remained one of great vigour in the industrial North of England, especially the woollen areas, with pockets of strength in parts of Scotland and the Midlands. ; but it remained weak in London and other southern towns, and completely absent from nearly all the rural areas. The ILP Directory, published in 1895 showed that out of the three hundred or so party branches listed, a hundred were in Yorkshire, mostly in the West Riding, over seventy in Lancashire and Cheshire, forty in Scotland, mostly in Glasgow and Strathclyde,  and thirty in the London area. Of the sixty remaining branches, most were in the Midlands and north-eastern counties of England, leaving Wales, Ireland and eastern England virtually without representation. It was primarily an industrial working-class party with a strong presence in particular localities in the textile towns and in the more scattered engineering districts of England. By replacing the cosmopolitan Socialism of the eighties with a national party, the ILP had merely succeeded in establishing itself as a provincial party by the mid-nineties.

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In 1896, Walter Crane had published Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-96, printed by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at Clerkenwell Green in London. As John Betjeman, the later poet laureate wrote in his foreword to its reprint in 1976, Crane’s cartoons are of historic interest as period pieces when high-minded Socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris. Crane was prominent among them, the first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild, an ardent ‘Guild Socialist’ and Positivist. Betjeman also wrote that:

Crane was no William Blake but a brilliant decorative artist. … Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all. … 

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The designs which are shown here are taken from Crane’s ‘portfolio’ and were done from time to time over the decade from the summer of 1885 which, as Crane wrote in his preface, had been a period of remarkable progress in the knowledge and spread of Socialist ideas.  They served on different occasions the Socialist movement, appearing in various journals devoted to ‘the cause’, including Justice. The year of publication was marked by the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress in July when workers and Socialists from all parts of the world met in London. It was hoped, as Crane wrote, that the event would …

… be the means of strengthening the ties of international brotherhood, and consolidating those common interests of humanity which makes for Peace and social progress; as well as giving an immense stimulus to the great movement towards the new era, when, society renewed upon a sound economic basis, the earth shall be for man and the fullness thereof.

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

The possibilities of life on the earth under such a change of system – and it is only a change of system – are as yet but dimly and partially apprehended; but to anyone who can read the signs of the times everything points to the approach of such great economic changes as those indicated, and consciously or unconsciously we may be all, whether rich or poor, factors in their evolution …  

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

Meanwhile, the Hyndman group continued to dominate the politics of the SDF, greeting with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an uncompromising hostility to all other parties. Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabian leaders were especially singled out for criticism. When, in 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to speak in his manifesto of the transformation of society by peaceful means, he was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his apparent abandonment of what the latter saw as the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of these defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the ILP as the leading Socialist party. In 1898 it claimed a total of 137 branches, twice as many as it had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure.

Since the 1895 General Election, it had gained ground at the expense of the ILP and its leaders were willing to support a merger with the ILP since they knew they would no longer be submerged. It was more overtly ‘Socialist’ both in its title and programme. Members of the Federation were expected to make a real attempt to master the theory of Marxism, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’ ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’. This was far more than the ILP branches were prepared to do. Also, there were many who had joined the SDF because they were hostile to the ILP for a variety of reasons, not least because it was not sufficiently democratic, a criticism shared by Blatchford. It was for these reasons that William Morris rejoined the party a short time before his death in 1896. Morris had come to accept the need for political action but was suspicious of Hardie, dating from the days when the latter was closely associated with Champion. In 1894, a young member of the SDF heard Morris speaking for the party in Manchester:

The last time I saw Morris, he was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal. … It was a wild March Sunday morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he had expressed a desire to do so, and so there he was., talking with quiet strenuousness, drawing a laugh now and then from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and on the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. He wore a blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat; and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. … In spite of the bitter cold of the morning, scarcely a man moved from the crowd; though there was comparatively little fire or fervour in the speech, and next to no allusion to any special topic of the hour. Many there were hearing and seeing the man for the first time; most of us were hearing from him for the last time; and we all looked and listened as though we knew it.

When Morris died two years later, aged sixty-two, the sense of loss which was felt by fellow Socialists was summed up by Robert Blatchford, the ILP’er and editor of The Clarion:

I cannot help feeling that it does not matter what goes into ‘the Clarion’ this week, because William Morris is dead. And what Socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact?  … He was our best man… It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater … Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike him where you would, he rang true…

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Morris’ greatest contribution to the socialist movement was the inspiration he provided, as Blatchford suggested, more as a man than as a theorist. In fact, the future for British Socialism lay not in revolution, as Morris had thought, but in a gentler, reformist approach, specifically through the election to Parliament of the ILP candidates. Nevertheless, the Socialist League in its short life played a vital role in forming that party; its stronghold was in the north, not in London, and this is was from these roots that the party sprang, whereas the SDF was strongest in the south. Morris did, to some extent, succeed in educating the working classes in Socialism, even though the results were not exactly what he had hoped they would be. It is more difficult to assess his influence on Socialism and socialist thought in the longer term. Recent revaluations suggest that his contribution in this area may have been undervalued and that he was a more substantial political theorist than has been realised. The ‘Marxist’ historian E P Thompson suggests that Morris’ essential contribution to British Socialism was his stress on a moral and humane element, on the importance of community and fellowship, and that this was a necessary complement to the more cerebral Marxist economic analysis.

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

The final years of the century were a time of sharply rising industrial militancy and the ‘imperial issue’ of Ireland: Of all these issues around the world, the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the one that  roused most interest, not simply because it was the closest to home and mixed with religious differences but also because it divided the Liberal Party as well as the workers. But it was the issue of poverty which began to attract men of social conscience, most notably the shipowners Charles Booth and the chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, quantify it and to record its reality and extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. At the beginning of the 1890s, thirty per cent of London’ population fell on or below Booth’s ‘poverty line’, which increased to 68% in Southwark and 65% in Greenwich, and Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was not much lower than these. Cases of real want could no longer be dismissed as unrepresentative. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes which were below the level needed for the maintenance of physical health and strength even if excellent housekeepers had been available to ensure that not even a farthing was spent on non-essential items. Rowntree calculated that in York in 1899, almost ten per cent of the population (15.5% of all wage earners) lived in primary poverty, below the ‘poverty line’, and this figure was considered to be not untypical of other provincial towns.  It was small wonder, therefore, that just over a third of those who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1902 were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators ‘arithmetic of woe’.

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Above: A Sunderland slum, c.1889: Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class. By-laws regulated new building, but slums like these were to take another forty years to clear.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought was aggravating the problems of the poor also made it possible to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services and local government expenditure began to increase. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s, electric tramcars, together with the availability of cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled wage-earners to escape from overcrowded town centres to the suburbs. And the spread of multiple shops such as Sainsbury’s and Lipton’s from the 1860s onwards was also an urban phenomenon, as were Saturday afternoon sporting events, excursions by train, and the music halls.

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The preference for smaller families, which became more marked among the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, was beginning to spread to the working classes, thus making the lives of married women considerably better, but this was a gradual change. The photo (right) shows the Gulliver family in c.1899, the children of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant, on the steps of their cottage in Ufton, Warwickshire. A further seven siblings were added in the following decade. There were also the beginnings of greater employment opportunities for single women. The reforms of secondary education after 1870 led to new grammar schools offering scholarships to bright young people of both sexes, providing them with a better start in life than their parents had had. There was also more time for leisure. C Stella Davies recalled her memories of the Clarion Cycle Club at this time:

At the club-house, after a ride through the lanes of Cheshire or over the Derbyshire hills, we ate an enormous tea of ham, pickles, jam and cake of such solidity that we called it a “tram-stopper” … Washing-up followed, after which we cleared the tables away for either a meeting, a play or a concert, finishing the evening by dancing … By ten o’ clock we were shooting down Schools Hill, bunches of wild flowers tied to our handle-bars, apples in our pockets, the wind lifting our hair …

The State of the Socialist ‘Cause’ & Labour’s ‘Turning Point’:

The Socialists, whether in the Socialist League, the SDF or the ILP, were the only active political group who were interested in bringing an independent working-class political party into being. They alone could provide a programme which would make it distinct and separate from the existing parties. Without such a programme, as Engels realised, there could be no such party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Even after the foundation of a Labour Party by the coming together of the trades unions with the socialist societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, its political independence remained in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, the Socialists possessed faith in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This ‘faith’ was based, ultimately, on the analysis of society first presented by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 and elaborated in their subsequent writings. This analysis was modified by Hyndman and the Fabians and simplified for popular consumption by Morris, Blatchford and Hardie. To its working-class adherents, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in their class consciousness; to middle-class progressives, it afforded the consolation that they were working in harmony with contemporary social change.

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Socialism had the dynamic quality of a faith devoutly held which was capable of conquering social realities. It had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. Just as now, it led them into making foolish statements, such as…

If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work, or this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population. 

But ‘the faith’ did not stand or fall by the publication of illusory and inaccurate figures: it depended much less on ‘reason’ than on deeper and simpler forces in human nature. G. B. Shaw summed this up in his 1897 article, The Illusions of Socialism, in which he wrote:

Socialism wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond.

It was this crusading zeal which drew attention to the Socialists in the eighties and enabled them to have an influence in British politics far beyond what their numbers justified. They made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers: in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed a political élite.  When it came to fighting elections, speaking at street corners, canvassing and delivering manifestos, the man with the red tie was worth a score of his more easy-going trade-unionists, a fact that the union leaders were obliged to take into account in drawing up the terms of the alliance in 1900. Not all the Socialists, however, could claim to have made a valuable contribution to the formation of the new party. The SDF had originated in a labour revolt against the National Liberal Federation, yet in the course of a few years, it came to embody a sectarian exclusiveness and hostility to all save the adherents to its own narrow creed. Engels himself resented the way it had managed to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. Hyndman’s was a doctrinaire radicalism, full of echoes of Tom Paine and the Jacobins, but devoid of any astute revolutionary technique. It was primarily to defend his more collaborative strategy that Hardie fought tooth and nail against a merger with the SDF. His attitude was justified by the attitude of the SDF leadership at the critical moment of the formation of the new party and their decision to secede eighteen months later.

The fact was, as George Lansbury understood better than Hyndman, that the British working class as a whole had no use for the concept of violent revolution, and that any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early period of the industrial revolution: the Norwich shoemakers who joined the Socialist League were, like the Chartist hand-loom weavers before them, making a protest against an industrial system which had no place for their craftsmanship. But fractures and dislocations of this kind were transitory events: a permanent political organisation of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively move forward to the formation of a Labour Party. The Fabian Society performed the essential service of adapting Marxist theory to a form compatible with British constitutional practice, drawing heavily on indigenous radical and liberal ideas. But the Fabians had no direct involvement in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee and were never ready to believe that the time was ripe for the creation of a new party. The failure of their policy of permeation, in which they had placed such high hopes, turned their complacency to depression, and by the end of the century, most of the members of the Society were beginning, like Shaw, to distrust existing democratic processes.

Apart from the early efforts of Engels and the Marx-Avelings, it is Champion and his associates who deserve the credit for devoting themselves to the formation of a Labour Party. From 1893 onwards, the ILP began to provide examples of the value of independence. It had the initial support of Engels, and Aveling helped to draw up its programme. Within the limits of constitutionalism, it seemed to be determined to fight its battles without compromise. It governed itself by means of a supreme annual conference, a democratic device inherited from the trades unions, but not at that time adopted by any political party. The ILP also showed that poor as it was, it could fight elections against both Liberals and Conservatives and yet secure polls that were no discredit to the cause. Yet it was clearly a party with a future; and, given the support of the trade unions, it was obvious that the future would be rich in Parliamentary success. The greatest achievement of Keir Hardie and his ILP lay in the capture of trade union support as early as 1900. In the same year, Pete Curran of the ILP Council addressed the Congress of the Second International, striking a self-confident tone about the state of the labour movement as a whole in his critique of imperialism at home and abroad:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests … But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words … And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

The whole strategy of the ILP from its foundation had been based on the conception of collaboration with trade unionists with the ultimate objective of tapping trade-union funds for the eventual attainment of Parliamentary power. Eventually, even William Morris had to accept that the purity of the Socialist Cause was worth nothing without the power to enact its policies and that this power could only be enacted through parliamentary means and pluralistic methods. That may be a lesson that its current adherents in the Labour Party need to learn afresh. Let’s hope it doesn’t take them a further thirty or forty years to do so; at least they are not building from scratch.

 

Sources:

Christine Poulson (2002), William Morris. Royston: Quantum Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walter Crane (1896; 1976), Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. London: Twentieth Century Press/ Journeyman Press.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Walton et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted December 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Austerity, Baptists, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, democracy, Demography, East Anglia, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Fertility, History, Home Counties, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, Monuments, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Population, populism, Poverty, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Recreation, Scotland, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, West Midlands, William Morris

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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.

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By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.

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This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

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Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.

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It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.

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Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.

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Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.

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Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.

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The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.

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So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.

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Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 

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Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 

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Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.

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Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.

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There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.

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The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.

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The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.

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The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.

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In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

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In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).

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Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.

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The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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October-December 1939: The Not-so-Phoney War at Sea & in Poland and Finland.   Leave a comment

HMS_Royal_Oak_(08) (1)

Above: HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937

The Royal Oak & the Graf Spee; Orkney to Montevideo:

Eighty years ago, On 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, when she was torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s submarine U-47. It got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship, of which three hit the ship, capsizing it. After the sinking of HMS Courageous the previous month, this was an almost equally spectacular symbolic success for the Kriegsmarine. Of Royal Oaks complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed, 810 in only thirteen minutes that night, the others dying later of their wounds.  While the loss of the outdated ship, the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in the Second World War, did little to affect the numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies, the sinking had a considerable effect on wartime morale. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had considered the naval base at Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, and U-47s raid demonstrated that the German Navy was capable of bringing the war to British home waters. The shock resulted in rapid changes to dockland security and the construction of the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow.

002 (2)One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could be done by low-flying Heinkel He-IIIS and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats, shown in the painting on the right) and destroyers. Lacking a large surface fleet, the German Navy used small vessels for fast hit-and-run attacks.

By the end of November, these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered ways of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’ field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.

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The map above shows the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1941, with the green line showing the areas of severe U-boat impact. While in the U-boat Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon and it also had three purpose-built ‘pocket-battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, launched early in the war, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, as in the First World War, Germany was once again made use of its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. Its formidable capital ships were used as raiders against British commerce. Tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British resources. It was the spotting, disabling and forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the RN’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South American coast, Captain Hans Lansdorff’s ship had enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war, sinking ten ships totalling more than fifty thousand tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading, however, since although a limit of ten thousand tons had been imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six eight-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again.

In the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December, off the coast of Uruguay, the German ship took on the eight-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the six-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships. However, she was eventually outfought by the three British cruisers and was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received. Langsdorff then magnanimously released the Allied sailors he captured from ships he had sunk, who reported they had been well-treated. Then, mistakenly trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff then sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo  harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over twenty thousand spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically participated in releasing a giant ‘fake news’ story. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Back to Europe: Poland, the Baltic States & Finland:

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Meanwhile, in Poland, by 5 October, resistance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact forces had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. Seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers lay wounded. A hundred thousand Poles in the Russian ‘sector’ were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops. Then, on 10 October, Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in January 1940. At that point, Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

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September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Posted September 8, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Axis Powers, Baltic States, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Churchill, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, decolonisation, democracy, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Imperialism, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Paris, Poland, Population, Poverty, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Spanish Civil War, Statehood, terror, tyranny, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two

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